Why Sociologists Should Study the Internet

I don’t study the internet. Almost all of my work is historical – early 20th century economics and statistics, 1990s financial regulatory debates, and so on – and so I feel like ignoring the internet is a relatively defensible position for me. Unfortunately, ignoring the internet is not something that usually needs to be defended in Sociology. Right now, the prior runs in the opposite direction: researchers interested in conducting primarily or purely online research must defend that choice against a skeptical discipline. Survey responses collected online are considered less representative, ‘interviews’ conducted via Skype or in text-based media aren’t as valuable as face-to-face conversations, and ethnography of online communities or practices doesn’t give you the same kind of credibility and legitimacy as offline observations.

All this is changing, of course – 30 years ago, there wasn’t much of an internet to speak of. 20 years ago, there were hardly any articles about it. Now there are some books, a few articles in top journals and so on. But I think we haven’t gone nearly far enough. So I want to lay out a handful of reasons why sociologists should study the internet. By that I mean two interrelated things: first, sociologists should study phenomena that are new to the internet, or much more prominent because of the internet. Second, sociologists should take advantage of the internet to in studies of traditional topics. Following up on this post, I’ve asked a couple of my fellow Michigan graduate students who do focus on the internet in their work to give their takes on why sociology should study the internet (in both the senses just described). Their guest posts will follow in the coming weeks.

So, why the internet? Here’s a list in no particular order that mixes reasons why internet-only phenomena are worth studying and reasons why we should use the internet in studies of phenomena that we have traditionally studied in other sites.

1. Almost everyone uses the internet (in the US, and more broadly the rich parts of the world).

2. …but not everyone has it, and not having access is a big problem (“the digital divide”).

3. The internet has become ubiquitous. For many people, the internet is no longer accessed in special places (offices, universities, libraries) but is now coextensive with cell-phone networks and the like.

4. People use the internet to make sense of almost every aspect of their lives. What restaurant should I go to? Check Yelp. What’s the “nuclear option” in the Senate filibuster debate? Check Wikipedia. How can I tell if this mole might be cancerous? Check the Mayo clinic’s website, or WebMD. According to Pew (one of the best sources for basic internet usage information), 61% of Americans look for health information online.

5. The internet is a complement to offline interactions. People organize parties on Facebook. They write journal articles using Dropbox to share files, and Skype for meetings. They post in forums and comment on web blogs for sufferers of stigmatized illnesses in addition to or instead of attending traditional support groups. They meet their potential spouses, and hook-up partners, on dating websites. And so on. Not to mention the whole internet-fed (if not led) revolutions across the Middle East.

6. The internet is big business. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and so on. Bitcoin would be a fascinating place to study a special money and its problems.

7. People do things on the internet that they don’t do elsewhere, and they spend lots of time, energy and sometimes money doing so. There are more than 10 million World of Warcraft players. There are over 500,000 Harry Potter fan fiction stories on fanfiction.net. That’s just one site, just one kind of fan fiction. Remix culture more generally thrives on the internet. Paul Krugman loves lolcats.

8. The internet offers incredible sources of data for studying traditional questions. Are you interested in how people make sense of their illnesses? Why not read their forums and blogs instead of (or in addition to) observing in-person meetings or conducting interviews. As with other observational data, you can’t guide the interaction, but you get a great sense of what the participants themselves think matters, and how they frame their own concerns. Plus, for rare diseases, or those that are particularly stigmatized, the internet may be where most of the action is.

9. Over the next few decades, there will be massive political fights about the internet and related technologies. Censorship, privacy, and intellectual property are some of the biggest concerns, but there are many more. How do we deal with internet bullying? Should ISPs have the right to privilege certain traffic (the “net neutrality” debate)? As with most large technical systems, the internet’s architecture – hardware, software, standards, laws – embodies a certain technopolitics.

10. Finally, if we don’t study the internet, we will become increasingly irrelevant. In 2000, Putnam could ignore internet groups in his study of the declining participation of Americans in civic organizations. In 2011, it would make a lot less sense.

Ok, that’s enough under-sourced provocative statements for now. What do you think? How should sociology respond to the growth of the internet? Why is it taking us so long to take the internet seriously? Will we still have to ask this question in five years, or is there a massive wave of internet studies on the horizon? Look forward to guest posts on this topic in the coming weeks!

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7 Comments

  1. Russ

     /  July 22, 2011

    Excellent points. Have you seen the Association of Internet Researchers (http://aoir.org/). I don’t know too much about it but it seems to be pretty interdisciplinary and involving social scientists.

    Whenever I tell people outside the field (e.g., relatives) I study networks they all automatically assume I’m doing research on Facebook or Twitter. Not sure if that’s because of the (now) strong association of the term ‘social network’ with the internet, or the perceived importance of these sites.

  2. CBB

     /  April 17, 2012

    Any idea where one might find the appropriate MS/PhD program for it? I’d love to, and I’m trying. Sort of at a loss at this point.

    • Inside sociology? It’s much easier in Communications, for example, or Schools of Information (Michigan’s and Berkeley’s, say). I’m not sure where the best place for it would be in Soc.

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