Note: This is the third post in a series documenting examples of ‘sociology on the web.’ The first post, on the blog ‘Sociological Images‘, is available here. The second — on Aaron Swartz, applied sociologist — is available here.
One of 2012’s more interesting examples of sociology being done on the web is Tom Medvetz’s guest-blogger stint at Orgtheory.com. He made multiple contributions, but I want to quickly respond to one part: his direct comments about sociology blogging itself, which I boil down to a succinct question: why should sociologists blog? (my words, not his.)
First, Medvetz is the author of Think Tanks in America (2012), a timely and, I think, important book. He is also the co-author of “The Contemporary American Conservative Movement,” an article published in the Annual Review of Sociology (2011), and available here. Disclaimer: I love this article. Amazingly, it is one of the few sociological accounts of the conservative movement. I say “amazingly” because the conservative movement probably has been the most powerful political force in US society since at least the time of Reagan. Furthermore, the study is done from a sociology-of-knowledge perspective. Indeed, on Medvetz’s professor bio, “sociology of knowledge” is listed first among his main topics of study.
I point these two facts out — one, that Medvetz co-authored an important paper on the conservative movement; and two, that he is a sociologist of knowledge — because recently a compelling political event occurred across these two dimensions. The event was this: in early December, Jim DeMint — a prominent leader within the conservative movement — left his position in the US Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, a “think tank” and purveyor of knowledge to society.
The move of a conservative movement “kingmaker” from the Senate to a think tank — what did it mean? Was it the “death of thinks tanks” (as Ezra Klein suggested)? The end of the conservative movement? The changing of anything? Those who find the conservative movement — and its impact upon socialized political knowledge — important, had questions, lots of them.
Medvetz, for his part, used Twitter to disagree with Ezra Klein’s assessment that this was the death of think tanks:
Tom Medvetz (@tommedvetz) December 06, 2012
But for this one tweet, there is no web presence (that I can find — be happy to be wrong) of Medvetz commenting on either the DeMint move or its implication for the conservative movement and/or the sociology of knowledge.
Now, Medvetz owes neither me, nor anyone else, anything, as far as I’m concerned. The book and the article are so welcomed and appreciated by me, he can comment on anything he likes, whenever he feels like it. My reason for this blog post is simply, I wish he’d comment more often. Most important, I can see no better way to comment than on the web, in real time, so that audiences and I can watch as he reacts to new data, in real time. In real time. Did I say in real time? I hope I said in real time.
Ok, back to Medvetz’s blog post on blogging. In it, he argues blogging serves two purposes. One, it creates “pre-scholarly benefits” by “generating ideas that can be developed further in research.” Two, blogging creates “post-scholarly benefits” by serving as “a medium for summarizing or disseminating research results in a very authoritative and definitive style.”
Despite the language of his title — “Blogging Fast and Slow” — little of Medvetz’s look at sociology and blogging directly dealt with blogging’s great advantage: it is faster. A sociology blogger can comment on current events at the moment in which audiences most care about the event. No doubt blogging runs the risk of, as Medvetz puts it, relying on “sloppy generalizations, fuzzy and impressionistic thinking, and straw men.” But these are qualities of all thinking, fast and slow, as Khaneman himself has rather brilliantly pointed out. Indeed, there are now enough examples of high quality blogs in sociology (and economics, even more) to say that this is an unrealistic caricature of the kind of intellectual work that goes on on the web.
Perhaps the traditional academic process of peer review (not all that conducive to blogging) cuts down on the sloppy thinking, but I don’t know even that. All sociology proceeds on habits of theoretical thought, and it is these theories that allow us to think quickly. It is also these theories, by holding them too strongly and too dogmatically, that lead to poor thinking. My view is if more sociologists get on the web, and we collectively practice the act of doing sociology on the web, we will in time create institutions that allow us to get collectively better at doing sociology on the web. And then sociology will stand not only on the same solid intellectual ground as before, it will do so at a pace that capitalizes on sociology’s potential audiences.
So, why should sociologists blog? Audiences. Audiences want Medvetz’s (and other sociologists’) considered, data-driven analyses in the moment events are happening. If old ways of publishing don’t provide that, new ways of publishing are empirically called for.