Mitchell Dean – Critical and Effective Histories – Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology, 1994, Routledge

In Critical and Effective Histories, Dean is examining how Sociology has failed over the years to embrace historical analysis in its attempts to understand the characteristic social relations of modernity. He accuses sociological theory of ignoring the elements of history that pose difficulties to generalisation. The book is based on what the writings of Foucault -who Dean describes as a philosophical history who studied the history of thought – may have to offer the historical sense of sociology.

Historical analysis, in so far as it is regarded as dealing with the understanding of contingent events, different cycles and temporalities, and diverse and irreducible diachronic processes, stands at the margins of this science of historical movement. (p8)

According to Dean, Philip Abrams wrote in 1980 that sociology and history where involved in much the same activity and they are ‘methodologically indistinguishable’.

Historical sociology now becomes the study of both the structure-forming practices of human actors, and the enabling/constraining effects of those structures upon their actions. (p10)

Foucault was not a fan of hermeneutic or semiotics, distancing himself from these studies, saying that the endless interpretation of signs “dooms us to an endless task nothing can limit”. (p16)  His method treats social facts as ‘things’ which can be examined in a process he calls ‘archaeology’.

In rejecting the naive positivism that imagines history concerns itself with showing what it really was, Foucault replaces it with a sophisticated and rarefied form that insists on the irreducibility of the discursive order and the contents that appear within it. […] Instead of seeking to use documents to reconstruct the historical reality that lies behind and beyond them, Foucault asserts that the problem is to bring the positive reality of discourse into focus and attempt the description of its systems of formation. (p17)

Marshall McLuhan -Understanding Media, 1994

Chapter 11 Number:Profile of a Crowd

In the theater, at a ball, at a ballgame, in church, every individual enjoys all those others present.The pleasure of being among the masses is the sense of the joy in the multiplication of numbers, which has long been suspect among the literate members of Western society. (p116)

Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia – Virtual Communities as Communities: Net Surfers don’t ride alone – 1999, Communities in Cyberspace – Peter Kollock and Marc A. Smith eds, Routledge

Wellman and Gulia note that much existing research on online identity and communities have failed to take into account the wider context in which the interactions online are taking place.  Rather than treating internet activity as one part of a person’s life, much research isolated online behavior and examines it out of context.  They also note that there is little in the way of long term or in-depth analysis of online communities, looking at the ways in which various social networks online and in real life interlink, or how virtual communication factors into the overall communication patterns of people. They also note that there has also been relatively little research conducted on the nature and longevity of online intimacy.

Most of the analysis that does exist is parochial.  It almost always treats the internet as an isolated social phenomenon without taking into account how interactions on the Net fit together with other aspects of people’s lives. […] There have been very few detailed ethnographic studies of online communities, no surveys of who is connected to whom and about what,  and no time-budget accounts of how many people spend what amount of hours virtually communing. (p170)

When Wellman and Gulia then go on to describe the narrow focus of many internet communities and groups it raises the question for me whether this narrow focus of research has been dictated to some degree by the nature of the communities being studied.  Wellman and Gulia say that the Internet continues the trend of the real modern world of fostering specialized relationships. Many discussion groups are topic-oriented  (political, technical, social or recreational)  and this can lead to the creation of narrow relationships that focus more on the information shared than the relationships.

However, they also note that many of these specialized groups still perform a role of social support and companionship.  Performing these roles for  others online is often a way of expressing identity, particularly for people to whom expertise or supportive behavior is an important part of their self-identity.  These supportive behaviors help them to develop their reputation and recognition within the group.

Even when online groups are not designed to be supportive, they tend to be.  As social beings, those who use the net seek not only information but also companionship, social support, and a sense of belonging. For example, while the majority of elderly users of “SeniorNet” reported joining the net to gain access to information, nearly half (47%) had also joined to find companionship. Indeed, the most popular activity was chatting with others.  (p173)

On other occasions groups are mobilized online with the specific intent of providing both information and support – often for an event or activity that is happening/coordinated in the real world.  After the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 local university students had created information sites and electronic bulletin boards all within hours of the blast.  These sites informed locals of critical information like the names of the wounded, the hospitals in use, and where they could go to donate blood.  Another example that Wellman and Gulia give is that of striking professors in Israeli universities who coordinated their action in public and private groups online.

The lack of status or situational cues can also encourage contact between weak ties.  Often, the only thing known about others are email addresses which may provide minimal or misleading information. The relatively egalitarian nature of the net can encourage responses to requests. (p176)

Kiesler and Sproull 1992, and  Hilts and Turoff 1993 argue that “without physical and social cues or immediate feedback, email scan foster extreme language, difficulties in coordination and feedback, and group polarization.” Without situational cues or pre-established status within a group ties can often be weaker, however the same lack of predefined structure gives an egalitarian nature to these groups and can encourage responses from those who may not otherwise have responded.

In he end, despite their effort to do otherwise, Wellman and Gulia concluded that they have resorted to the anecdotal tactics of their predecessors. They finish with a call to action for more evidence-based research in the area.

We have concluded this chapter more like pundits and tellers of tales than like researchers.  As others before us, we have argued often by assertion and anecdote. This is because the paucity of systematic research into virtual communities has raised more questions than even preliminary answers. […] It is time to replace anecdote with evidence. The subject is important: practically, scholarly, and politically.  The answers have not yet been found.  Indeed, the questions are just starting to be formulated. (p188)

Berger, P.L., Luckmann, T. The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. 1967

The Social Construction of Reality is rooted in a sociological interest in the concepts of Reality and Knowledge. Berger and Luckmann argue that from a sociological perspective this interest is justified by the social relativity of these concepts.  Berger and Luckman say,  “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American Businessman.  The ‘knowledge’ of the criminal differs from the ‘knowledge’ of the criminologist.  It follows that specific agglomerations of ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’ pertain to specific social contexts, and that these relationships will have to be included in an adequate sociological analysis of these contexts.” (p15)

Berger and Luckmann believe that the sociology of knowledge should be concerned with a society’s criteria of knowledge and how this is developed.  Their postpositivist stance is clearly laid out when they write of how members of society arrange their world view around their ‘here and now’, both originating and maintaining their ideas of reality and knowledge from their own thoughts and actions (and other significants in their life) rather than anything truly objective.

The world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives.  It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these. (p 33)

Berger and Luckmann believe that semiotics or signification is the primary means by which human beings categorise their subjective view of the world.  They define a sign as anything that has an “explicit intention to serve as an index of subjective meaning.” (p50)   These include gestures, body language, material artefacts, and the most important is language, which they say may be defined as “a series of vocal signs”.

Language provides me with a ready-made possibility for the ongoing objectification of my unfolding experience. (p53)

Berger and Luckmann believe that society and social order are solely products of human activity, and that social norms and rules are a man-made, rather than natural, process.

Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality.  Man is a social product. (p79)

Because of this social construction, members of a society or ‘institution’ who were involved in the construction of the social norms are much more likely to conform to their constraints. Social disorder generally comes from new members of society that were not part of the construction. In order to properly ‘socialise’ new members of the society, sanctions must be put in place to prevent them from breaking the rules.

Deviance from the institutionally ‘programmed’ courses of action becomes likely once the institutions have become realities divorced from their original relevance in the concrete social process from which they arose.  To put this more simply, it is more likely that one will deviate from programmes set up for one by others than from programmes that one has helped establish oneself.  The new generation posits a problem of compliance, and its socialisation into the institutional order requires the establishment of sanctions. (p80)

Institutional segregation causes the formation of “socially segregated sub-universes of meaning”.  These sub-universes can be structured based on criteria such as sex, age, occupation or religion. Each sub-universe has it’s own structured values, norms, rules and barriers to entry.  Berger and Luckmann give the example of the medical profession as a sub-universe and the various mechanics in place to keep non-medical professions following the instructions of doctors and to keep doctors from resorting to unapproved conduct like religious or homeopathic healing.

The increasing number and complexity of sub-universes make them increasingly inaccessible to outsiders.  They become esoteric enclaves, ‘hermetically sealed’ (in the sense classically associated with the Hermetic corpus of secret lore) to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries. […] The outsiders have to be kept out, sometimes even kept ignorant of the existence of the sub-universe. If, however, they are not so ignorant, and if the sub-universe requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure. This is done through various techniques of intimidation, rational and irrational propaganda (appealing to the outsiders’ interests and to their emotions), mystification, and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols.  The insiders, on the other hand, have to be kept in. This requires the development of practical and theoretical procedures by which the temptation to escape from the sub-universe can be checked. (p104-105)

On the topic of revolution and revolutionary leaders Berger and Luckmann say that often a group will take on an ideological doctrine because it has gain for them and people of their status in society.  Involvement in such a group provides them with solidarity and legitimation for their cause.   The revolutionary leader likewise must have others who agree with him and help to maintain the subjective plausibility of his ideology in his own mind.  Practical success of the ideology fortifies the reality it possesses for the leader and the group as a whole.

 Frequently an ideology is taken on by a group because of specific theoretical elements that are conducive to its interests. For example, when an impoverished peasant group struggles against an urban merchant group that has financially enslaved it, it may rally around a religious doctrine that upholds the virtues of agrarian life, condemns the money economy and its credit system as immoral, and generally decries the luxuries of modern living. The ideological ‘gain’ of such a doctrine for the peasants is obvious. […] Every group engaged in social conflict requires solidarity.  Ideologies generate solidarity.  The choice of a particular ideology is not necessarily based on its intrinsic theoretical elements, but may stem from a chance encounter. (p141-142)

Judith S. Donath- Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community 1999, Communities in Cyberspace – Peter Kollock and Marc A. Smith eds, Routledge

 In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity.  The norm is: one body, one identity. (p29)

This chapter examines how identity is established and how identity deception is controlled online.  It takes an ethnographic approach, interpreting closely examined social discourse (Geertz 1973) and examining a virtual community as a communications system and its inhabitants as signallers and receivers.

Donath examines how identity is established in online communities – free from the anchor of their human body, participants online are free to create as many personae as they have time and energy to.  This chapter questions how these personae link back to the body-bound identity that created them and how much they are reliant on and responsible for each other.   Donath says that identity is an essential part of how we assess the trustworthiness or reliability of another and our reputations should be treated with care as they are essential to our placement within a community.  In online newsgroups trust is important because they often centre on information seeking and provision.   It is important to those seeking information that they know where the person providing the information is coming from in relation to their motivation and measure of expertise.  To the individual it is important that they are displaying a recognisable identity, as one of their main aims is to develop a reputation within the group.

There are many examples of deception in nature and the animal kingdom, as when certain animals mimic the colours or sounds of other more dangerous animals to scare away predators.  Donath asks the question why this is not a more common tactic, and though this question is not fully answered she notes that if deception is too prevalent a signal will become unreliable and will no longer convey its message.

[In] stable systems of deception […] the percentage of deceivers does not overwhelm the population, and the signal remains information-bearing, however imperfectly. And there are signals that are inherently reliable: signals that are difficult, or impossible, to cheat. (p32)

She discusses Amotz Zahavi’s 1993 work on signal reliability, which proposes the “handicap principle”. This principle suggests that signals such as carrying a heavy load signify strength or carelessly wasting lots of money signify wealth and these ‘assessment signals’ are not easily faked and thus generally very reliable.  Signals that don’t follow the handicap principle are called conventional signals.  These signals can be made without possessing the trait –such as wearing a t-shirt associated with a gym – but they mean something to both the signifier and the receiver due to custom or convention.  A conventional signal can become unstable if there is too much deception associated with it though, and it will eventually loose its significance.  Conventional signals are generally easier and less costly for both the signaller and the receiver so they are still widely used, despite the possibility of deception.   To make the signals more reliable there is often a punishment associated with deception within a community or society.

Identity in cyberspace is even more subjective and often harder to define. Signals usually take the forms of usernames, email addresses (and domain they are associated with), information included in the signature, and the voice and tone, all of which present the user in the way that they wish to be identified.

Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” makes the distinction of “expressions given” (signaller’s intent) and “expressions given off” (receiver’s interpretation) – which deals with the subtle nuances of language and action that can betray aspects of person’s true identity online. Donath asks if these are assessment or conventional signals.  The username, signature or email address of a net user can also often be used to trace their net history and get an impression of their interests and views and a complete internet history is something that requires more effort than most people are willing to fake.  The use of topic or forum specific language markers and acronyms can also identify a user as a member of a specific online group.

Most of this identifying information can be faked to some degree of success, and Internet trolls use this to their advantage, but others use this deception to protect their real life identity or to explore various personae. Pseudonyms are common and often expected, but they raise questions about balancing privacy and accountability.

New ways of establishing and of hiding identity are evolving in the virtual world. There is no formula that works best in all forums: balancing privacy and accountability, reliability and self-expression, security and accessibility requires a series of compromises and trade-offs whose value is very dependent on the goals of the group and of the individuals that comprise it. (p56)