Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Online Social Networking: Identity Construction & Social Capital

danah m. boyd and co-author Nicole B. Ellison define social networking sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others in the system” (boyd & Ellison, 2008).

Online social networking has become the norm in contemporary life. Its trajectory can be traced past the creation of bulletin board systems hosted on personal computers and accessed via modem. Ultimately, the internet gave rise to personal homepages, instant messaging, discussion forums, chat groups, dating services, blogs, and social networking sites. Today’s sites are many; the most popular ones today seem to be Myspace.com, Facebook.com, Twitter.com, and Lookbook.nu.

It is my position that the disparity between representations of self, on- and offline, in community formation, on- and offline, is formed in the differences in the rate of transmission, publicity and archiving of the social worlds of users through their textual and symbolic articulation of one’s being, experiences, and communication between users. These elements come together to form narratives of existence, discourses of dominant and oppositional voices, the formation of and self-positioning in habitus and class-based social worlds, and a departure from music-based ascription to social circles. Such narratives tell the story of our lives as we and others who interact with us represent them and read them. Discourses ranging from dominance of race, gender, class are disseminated prolifically on sites like Facebook and Lookbook. Also, class positions are taken by users in symbolic representation of self, through either images, status updates, declared attendance to social events, the declaration of brand loyalties and taste positions on music, clothing, food, art, activities, practices, and pastimes.

Myspace is a site where one’s profile is a clean slate, fully manipulated by the user, displaying the user’s tastes through image reproduction, statements, and associations, and enables interaction with one’s peers on an interest basis. Facebook is similar in form, however maintains certain aesthetic structures that are consistent across profiles. Facebook users receive instant news feeds on the happenings of their online friends, including photographs, comments, status updates, personal information, consumer tastes and habits, and attendance to social events. Also, instant chatting is an integral, and bridge building, element to Facebook’s capacities as a social network. Twitter is a simplified take on the news feed, and simply focuses on personal statements of current status. In this scenario, complete strangers may become fans of each other’s posts, following each other’s often mundane reports of personal existence. Lookbook is a social networking site that allows relationships to be formed and maintained through the posting of one’s outfits that are rated by other users in a liked or not fashion, commented on, and users also make fans of each other, offering emailed notifications of new looks.

Myspace is primarily used to promote oneself in a naïve professional manner. Users such as musicians, visual artists, bloggers, photographers, use profiles to promote their craft and maintain a measurable and accessible fan base. Many contemporary successes were born on Myspace, such as the emergence of UK singer Lily Allen, or the self-made internet pornstar Tia Tequila turned reality television sideshow. Many audiophiles use Myspace to search for new music; upstart bands that would have had a fan base of a strictly localized scene in the time before the internet, but now have the resources such as this to reach a broader audience.

Facebook is much more a mirror to one’s offline social world; but much like Lacan’s mirror stage, it offers a libidinal relationship with the self and one’s ego. It is my belief that users view themselves in an idealised way from the construction of the self online as representing symbols of being easier formed through textual media than it is in physical interpersonal interactions. Also, networks formed are of a corporate nature, connecting people’s social practices with their consumer practices and tastes.

Lookbook has a peculiar system which influences hegemonies of class, age, and adherence to aesthetic habitum in fashion appraisal. The tagging of clothing articles presents linkages to particular brands; more popular brands have a presence wherein obscurity is obfuscated. The same goes for users, unless browsers of style are altruistic enough to turn a particular vague and unnoticeable filter off, newer members are kept out of sight from more celebrated users. Also, more celebrated users gain more overall attention through their overrepresentation on the site.

Zhao’s research on identity construction on Facebook, mirrored my own postulations that “Facebook selves appeared to be highly socially desirable identities individuals aspire to have offline but have not have been able to embody for one reason or another” (Zhao et al., 2008). His method was a content analysis of profiles on anonymous social networking sites as compared to those on what he labels nonymous social networking sites, like Facebook. Nonymous sites generally focus more on the consumer habits and tastes of the user, whereas anonymous sites present a more stylized, yet realistic, presentation of who the person represents themselves as in real life. In such mastery of one’s identity and social trajectory, youth participants in a study by Schmitt et al. reported “feelings of success, and pride” (Schmitt et al., 2008). The use of such nonymous online social networks allow development of the user’s social world by enriching the textual strength between peers who socialize in the real world; it is as though the platform of the Facebook profile gives the user a buffer by which exploration of each other’s identities becomes a manageable part of our expression of self.

Further, the McLuhanian position on online social networking and the digital image is being researched, Sophie Woodward conducted a project with 800 partcipants using digital cameras to socially interact and engage with one’s world while also socializing online as mediated by the posting and commenting on pictures, its effect on changes in fashion expression of the local club scene were measured. She finds that “the digital camera both mediates the relationship between people and gives rise to… the desire to be rephotographed” (Woodward, 2008). One’s appraisal of self as mediated by online social networks, and the ideal form in the frame of a digital photograph, is beyond the affect of social anxiety in being an actor of a physical network. Facebook offers the opportunity to ‘tag’ or ‘untag’ one’s image, comment, be commented on, the type of social interaction that would take so much longer and pains taking to accomplish in the physical world, that higher levels of social accomplishment must be felt.

Ellison et al. examine the formation and maintenance of social capital through the use of Facebook among members of current and previously inhabited communities; the findings showed, among greater psychological well-being, users gain many social benefits from online social networks (Ellison et al., 2007). This research is framed in a Bourdieu and Wacquantesque fashion, and emphasizes the shared habitus of communities formed off- and online; regarding social capital as “the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Ellison et al., 2007). Social capital is measured in three forms: bridging, bonding, and maintained. The first measures efforts to branch out using “external assets for information diffusion,” the second measures efforts to strengthen friendship through textual communication, and maintenance measures the continued interpersonal relationships between friends in the absence of physical presence.

Social networking sites mimic unmediated social structures around people, not group membership necessarily (boyd & Ellison, 2008). Online relationships are stronger in boyd’s finding than offline, though she stresses there is a connection between people’s associations on- or offline, such as people who share a class but do not necessarily engage each other face-to-face, will find it easier to do so online. “Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible” (Reichelt, 2007). This is a buzz term, recently come into popular use from philosophical and sociological considerations of Twitter.

“We all act as both users and makers of representation, telling stories and listening to them, making causal analysis and reading them” (Becker, 2007). In online social networking, users and makers are one and the same. The perceived agency of expression, and the felt control over what is expressed, along with the access to others personal lives and presentations of self, make social engagement in this textual way a progression in cultural literacy, and thus mastery. For example, there are users of Lookbook, who at the age of twelve have a fashion sense and style way beyond their years. I wonder if this is McLuhan’s theoretical position at work; the access to media based content affecting the concept of self and expression of cultural symbols. Once, young women had only homemaking texts to construct themselves as female. Later, fashion magazines offered a product mediated construction of femininity. Today, the construction of image discourses are user driven, lending to higher levels of literacy in cultural contexts at a younger age.

In the chapter, Summarizing Details, Becker discusses the reduction of social realities into any representation as “making a little out of a lot” (Becker, 2007). Meaning, the selection of what is communicated is an attempt to speak for a ‘thousand words’ what a few ‘words’ state; in this case words stand in for all textual communications, including image, video, and sound. In the case of online profiles, the little that is read represents that lot of information to establish a complete perception, causing narratives to be formed on the part of the user in appraisal of the maker.

My ethnographic investigation of online social networks follows from Becker’s consideration of Whyte’s Street Corner Society, a participant observation approach to the study of people’s interactions and social meaning making in a place based cultural context (Becker, 2007). I am doing much of the same; however the ‘place’ is in the digital landscape. Observations are made on interactions between people in their “institutional capacities,” within and without their social circles, the structure to online social networks implying certain strictures in user agency, the publicity and awareness of each others ‘friends’ and the existence of mutual acquaintances (Becker, 2007). Also, I am considering the juissance in perceiving the self as part of a social world, especially in the context of urban dance scenes, through public declarations of where and when one will be and through legitimisations of one’s participation in these real world social engagements through representation on photoblogs and personal online photo albums.

Aside from participant observations, my research will entail content analysis of online profiles, and photo-elicitation interviews to determine the users’ perception of self as represented online. I hope to gain an understanding of how people make meaning through symbolic representation, a dramatalurgical approach. In a Sausurrian sense, I am interested in how people read other’s presentations of self, as a measure of meaning making in reading text. I would like to investigate how users feel about their representation of self and how those relate to their perception of the self as presented in the physical world. To me, some important considerations are of profile lurking, friend requests and online vs. offline acts or omissions of intimacy, the idealistic properties of pen-palling, feelings about the networking sites themselves and their effect on the users’ daily lives.

Communication technology has progressed throughout the ages. To further Walter Ong’s line of theoretical pursuit, communication and meaning-making has passed from primary orality, to residual orality. This path is followed by Barthes’ studies on the orality-literacy turn, arguing a progress in cultural, intellectual, and social performance and appraisal in the latter aspect of the binary. Other technologies, such as improved means of travel, novels, telephonic and facsimile communications, book of the month clubs, radio, moving picture, television, news media, all convey cultural texts and a social participation of masses and intimate interactions within and across virtual and physical locales. I assert that each progression in this linear trajectory of communication technologies there occur changes in the way people relate to one another and how we do so is paramount to understanding society as a whole. In addition to top-down considerations of systems, the bottom-up approach regards society as the sum and sense of interpersonal relations in the fulfilment of desires, in social positioning, and acts or omissions in response to institutional structures.

Online social networking, as vanguard of communicative technology provides strength to users in amassing social capital among peers. There is a disparity between the online self and the offline self, and thus so too is there inconsistency between community formation on- and offline. What are these differences? What are the implications herein for future social engagement and concept of self? 

Becker, H. S., (2007). Telling About Society. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B., (2008). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 210-230.

Ellison, N. B., Stanfield, C., & Lampe, C., (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143-1168.

Reichelt, L. (2007). http://www.disambiguity.com/ambient-intimacy/

Schmitt, K. L., Dayanim, S., & Matthias, S., (2008). Personal homepage construction as an expression of social development. Developmental Psychology, 44(2), 496-506

Woodward, S. (2008). Digital photography and research relationships: Capturing the fashion moment. Sociology, 42(5). 857-872.

Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J., (2008). Identity construction on Facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in Human Behaviour, 24, 1816-1936.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gentrification in Parkdale: A Symbolic Structuralist/Interactionist Perspective

The Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale is a historically devalued area, and has been the target of gentrification for quite a few years (Wahl, 2006). In the late nineteen-nineties and into the twenty-first century, the low rent and property values, and its proximity to already thriving cultural hub of avant guarde commodity consumption, attracted artists and galleries into the industrial and commercial spaces that were widely available at a very affordable rate. As time passed and the art culture matured, it has been appraised in much higher esteem by potential homeowners and businesses alike (Ley, 2003). Ute Lehrer (2006) defines three types of space: physical, social, and symbolic; crucial frames in which to evaluate space and its power structures. The encroaching uses of space are marginalizing community members of limited financial strength, such as the old, the poor, and newcomers. The changing landscape of Parkdale, and the uses of its spaces, amounts to what Bourdieu calls a symbolic violence.

Mele (2005), regarding the investment in poor working-class neighbourhoods, asserts:
“For investment in housing to profit, place entrepreneurs are compelled to create the most propitious neighbourhood social and cultural conditions to attract a new and higher status of residents. In short, they must reinvent place.”
Gentrification is in essence a new style of urban renewal, not at all haphazard. It is the swift, buy low sell high, re-entry of the gentry into the bustling city core. Back to the business district, back to Parkdale. Parkdale was once a borough, quite wealthy, quite the value having access to the lake away from industry. However, when rail tracks were constructed to bring raw materials in from the hinterland for manufacturing and quick distribution to New York and especially to London; these tracks would allow Toronto to compete with Montreal economically. The special division caused by the tracks, between the homes of Parkdale and the lake, devalued land tremendously. Also, the erection of the Asylum at 999 Queen Street West caused further drain of the affluent population. In recent history, the Conservatives who held the Provincial seat slashed social services, including the closing down of rooming houses that were the home of innumerable psychiatric out-patients. In short, Parkdale has been on a steady down slope for a good long time, it is no wonder the insanely low property values have enticed investors to flip Parkdale one hub at a time.

Zukin remarks on symbolic economy, she attributes the possibility of affluent interest in the development of devalued land to the ability of entrepreneurs in manipulating “symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement” (Zukin, 2005). A relevant example is the redevelopment of the Drake and Gladstone Hotels. Both hotels thrived when Parkdale was in a good state, both fell on hard times when Parkdale fell into disrepair from disregard. Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel demonstrated an in intentional move by an investor to revitalise a space in such a fashion that was deliberately marketed towards the culture vultures who line up to feed off the “art scene” space, as one of the Zeidlers repeats over and over again (Graham & Roemer, 2007). Now not just an area replete this artists and small to large scale galleries, rather a repackaging, a commodification of the youth street essence of a neighbourhood (Ley, 2003). It however makes you wonder, as you watch residents of the Gladstone forced out of their homes, how long are artists going to be able to live in Parkdale before rents are too high?

Swartz explicates Bourdieu’s cultural capital, werein “culture becomes power… when cultural markets emerge where investors exchange currencies and strive for profits” (Swartz, 1997). Instantly as the art culture is repackaged as high culture, the gentry interested in harnessing that cultural capital, elevating themselves above the mundane middle-class existence of suburban life, the move to new culturally-revitalized downtown locations whose movement is congruent with the Municipal Government’s revanchist global city plan turning the city into a product marketable to foreign interests as a suitable place to visit and do business; all the underclass relegated, literally, to the margins. Symbolic violence “fulfill(s) a political function” (Swartz, 1997).

Symbolic capital is crucial to any member of society’s sense of their place on the scale of socio-economic class. The higher classes have the most power in symbol because the have the monetary capital to produced and reproduce their tastes making the awareness of their symbolic power well-known to the other classes. The middle classes strive to present the self as the higher classes in order to share some status, they stretch their finances to ‘pass’ as the higher classes, by taking up the symbols produced by the higher classes, such as condo dwelling downtown, leasing of luxury automobiles, and the donning of designer accoutrements (whether fake or real). The lower classes have no productive or representative means and thus cannot ‘buy what their selling’ thus forcing them into finding cheaper locations elsewhere, places where aggressive high-class symbols do not abound, locations where many small businesses thrive and await competing with future large entrepreneurial forces in their own determined wave of gentrification. The underclass, the subaltern, has no voice; their fate vis-à-vis the gentry is evident, neo-liberal politics have no interest in the aid of the poor, indigent, and homeless, rather intent on sweeping them away and out of sight. Neo-liberal policy in the global era has an eye towards presenting the city as a product, a symbol on its own, and so long as that image is untarnished the commodity has integrity.

There are bodies who speak for the subaltern who are firmly in place in devalued areas like Parkdale. These organisations, such as the Parkdale Residents’ Association (PRA), the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), and St. Christopher House, strive for symbolic capital in a guilt economy (Betensky, 2000). Groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) have symbolically attacked the dominant forces by stealing Pope John Paul II’s thunder during his visit to Toronto, by using the temporarily bloated metropolitan population as an audience for a squat that occurred in a Parkdale wherein OCAP occupied a vacant building. This act was to rearticulate Locke’s property by determining a space public, when once it was locked as private, but had been aimlessly left astray, ownerless, ready to be swept up and flipped by the gentry (Lehrer, 2006). The pope squat rearticulated space across three dimensions: physical, social, and symbolic.

The physical space refers to the structural state of space, its form, and design; the pope squat suggested certain spaces are still relevant regardless of its use or abandon. Social space refers to the practices taking place in the spaces like coffee shops, theatres, shops, galleries; the sharing of space by bodies has strength on its own, and the squat made that known. Lastly, symbolic space is an imagined space created by practice and collective memory of people (Lehrer, 2006). Space plays a role in the symbolic ordering of the cultural and class habitus (Bridge, 2001). To maintain a presence and an audible articulation of that presence, the pope squat was a counter-discourse to the symbolic capital of the encroaching dominant forces of gentrification. Albeit, ultimately an ash in the sand, and a flash in the pan.

Ultimately, as Gibson (2005) reiterates Barthes regarding symbolic capital and consumption, “authorship… migrated from the producer to the audience, and the interpreter… thus became the true ‘producer’ of textual meanings.” In essence, if the intended market does not read symbols from entrepreneurs and developers of the cultural capital of the space as something congruent with their desires for upward social mobility, they would be reluctant to participate. Thus far the Parkdale neighbourhood has seen the emergence of the two aforementioned hotels, bars and clubs, restaurants, clothing stores, and from a market base perspective plenty of condominiums have been erected and townhouses laid to house the countless young urban professionals, including dual income households with no children (DINCs), who seek to enrobe themselves in this hotbed of cultural textuality and artistic authenticity, at least as long as it remains authentic which rarely an appropriation for commodification does.

One way this class capital affects marginal community members is it robs them of the places where they normally convene. The case of the old lady and the residents at the Gladstone comes to mind; I’m certain other locales of social engagement and dwellings, affordable enough to accommodate the financially stricken, have been cleared away in order to install these loci of symbolic violence and imposers of forced displacement, such as the Starbucks and like businesses, also Liberty Village and other condo-communities being constructed.

Another effect is the rise property values, and correspondingly the rise in property taxes. The former encourages the changing hands of property, most likely to more affluent purchasers who seek to capitalize on their new assets; such investment can come from entrepreneurs, private residents, and housing developers. The rise in property taxes is most insidious in its carnage. Imagine a pensioner, on fixed income, who had worked her entire life to pay off her Parkdale home. All of a sudden, the surrounding development causes her costs, through tax increases, to exceed her means, forcing her to sell her home and either purchase a smaller more affordable home in a more shanty part of town, or withering away her new found capital on an apartment. Small businesses surely also fail due to the rising cost of operation in gentrifying neighbourhoods.

Food scarcity becomes a concern for the marginal community members, as smaller food providers, such as grocers and butchers, disappear to be replaced by corporate entities, whose space and geographic logic favours heavily those who have the means to drive. It has already been seen in my own research that in South Riverdale such a transition has occurred, and the poor, ill, and old have grave difficulty reaching or paying for healthy good quality foods at reasonable rates within close proximity to their homes.

It is clear symbolic violence is no way hyperbolizing the obviously tangible results of gentrification that begins with the symbolic cultural claim to space. In order to abate the negative consequences of gentrification, two disparate class groups must learn to love living in unison, and articulate space capital for both and develop an inclusive discourse of modest and humane urbanity. When the marginal are themselves the capital, and the subaltern speaks.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Visual Sociology

“Photography and sociology have approximately the same birth date, if you count sociology's birth as the publication of Comte's work which gave it its name, and photography's birth as the date in 1839 when Daguerre made public his method for fixing an image on a metal plate. From the beginning, both worked on a variety of projects. Among these, for both, was the exploration of society.”

- Becker, H. S. 1974. Photography and Sociology.

Photography has a place in sociology, however, not as the product, but as a part of the process. Sociologists are hungry for data. We crave text to codify. We are bound to empiricism. Empirical observation is mediated by the senses; senses that form the threshold to a world of perception, subjective appraisal. Photography penetrates, provokes, persuades. Though, conversely photography is static, and asks to be scrutinized, to be critically engaged with, to be accepted and/or rejected. Photography is both objective and subjective in its transmissions and receptions, in all six permutated couplings.

To return to my assertion that photography in sociology is most legitimately applicable in the process of gathering information, rather than the lazy act of presenting image as sociological thought. There is meaning wrapped up in the text, but the text is not the sociological meaning. For instance, the work of Znaniecki and Thomas did not end in the presentation of Polish immigrant life texts; those diaries, and images, became the sample to be made sense of. Likewise, the use of photography in the pursuit of sociological knowledge should not be reduced to the use of photography in dissemination of social politics. It is the difference between grounded theory and ideological propaganda.

Becker makes the argument that Sociology ought to join the ranks of natural scientists, historians and anthropologist in the appreciation of photography as a way of documenting evidence. Though, converse to Becker’s assertions, I maintain that photography ought not answer sociological questions, rather it should raise them. Photography should be used to identify the underlying subtext of typical observations. So instead of viewing an image of homeless as an example of homelessness expressed, the image should retain imbedded codes for seeing the issues around homelessness, and should call into question our perceptions of it. What is the condition of homelessness beyond our ethereal constructions? What has an immutable image to say about it?

More importantly, in the pursuit of sociological knowledge, is a study of the appraisal of image by the subject (sample population). Thus, the image recedes in its role as sociological truth, and the lived experience of the individual, or group, becomes the object. Methods of photo-elicited interview, for example, allow participants to reflect on image and make meaning as pertaining to a particular topic of interest guided by the researcher. The expressed experience, the meaning making, of people is a veritable interest in sociological research. Such is the nature of surveys and focus groups. Further, Photovoice is the method of allowing participants to take pictures whose framing says something about personal experience, then conducting interviews guided by the interpretations of one’s own images. There is a closed loop between evidence production and meaning making that distances the researcher and champions the cultural text in the intersection between mimesis and diegesis.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

statement of interest

My father, an Iranian physician practicing here in Canada, was among the first generation of his patriarchal line to have left Iran. His father, a humble grocer, was the first in five generations to move from the family home. My father traces these changes to the invention of air travel, the telephone, and before that the paving of roads; in short, improved technologies of communication, that bring long distances closer, have a significant impact on the social and spatial organisation of bodies. As I perceive it, digital communication in the form of image and audio media, transcommunicative handheld devices, and most notably, the internet have changed the way we organise socially, spatially, and in psyche.
Social networking websites have become an important tool in the social interactions of its users. My interest is in discovering exactly what impact these media have on our social behaviours. Is the place of the World Wide Web an adequate landscape for establishing and maintaining social circles? How does the heightened ability to present the self in the second life of the internet, through profile pages, photoblogs, and online diaries, factor into the perception of one’s real world and presentation of self? Producers and consumers of culture are coming closer together, regardless of spatial distance, and mingling in the ether(net), forming neo-tribes of similar interests. Much of my observations are as a result of my use of such social networking websites as Facebook, coupled with an engagement in various social scenes. I believe that if this shift in communicative agency is a sign of things to come, people the world over may be able to better subvert the institutional forces imposed on them. Therefore I consider this phenomenon worthy of further investigation.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The State of Intellectual Play

Drawn back to the economic model of Adam Smith, and the dawn of the capitalist economic system, neoliberalism has become the core of North American rightwing politics in this schizophrenic state of post-911 revanchism, contrasting the socialist model of the left. The former perspective values deregulation, supporting free trade, and allowing the free market to speak to and influence our practices and policies, as though this model represents some kind of universal consensus.
Unfortunately, we are all bound to the modern economic system, requiring our humble servitude, relegating our agency to choices serving fiscal consciousness. Academics are often met with the challenge of meeting a societal need; however such needs are being spelled out as the need to increase profit margins, create jobs, and keep the ball rolling, maintain the status quo. The bureaucratization of universities also enables this capitalist position with the increase of managerial style administration. In effect, universities are research factories; teaching students is often relegated to a latent function, mostly a way of harvesting future producers of knowledge commodities.
In my experience, observing the administrative system of the university, often curriculum decisions are made to meet external and internal economic needs. One directive is to construct programs which meet the needs of some industry or another; for example, a need for more physicians, or nurses. The other is to meet the fiscal needs of the program itself, such as internalizing a course to avoid paying another department for teaching it. This order is problematic. It avoids pedagogical considerations. It positions capitalism above scholarship as the impetus for academic change. Also, creates a precedent for future like actions.
Kurasawa is right in projecting a vision of subversion by disseminating knowledge power to the internal and external populous. However, this freedom comes at a price. One must be so entrenched in the system, that expulsion for ones politics would be difficult. However, even so, such radicalism must be subtly dispersed as to not espouse strong reactions. In an extreme example, one couldn’t simply denounce ones own university, I believe such utterances could cost one their job. However, not all is lost, for example, Sears teaches from the left, not by articulating a socialist political perspective, rather by building a critical framework in the minds of students, to question everything, and to see relationships in their entirety, to understand systems as being driven by structure and conflict. Such a model of teaching encourages vigilance of the nature of things, thereby allowing for visibility of every facet of neo-liberalism.
What happened to the love of knowledge? Why then do academics earn PhDs, doctor of philosophy? Why has careerism taken the place of intellectualism? Where are the philosopher kings? One encouraging way to consider this state of things is that the academic capitalists will surely create, in their intellectual vacuum, an oppositional voice; a field of true scholars emerge from the margins as harbingers of thought. However, stock in scientific research, forces producers of knowledge to apply for grants in order to produce the evidence required for their assertions. The granters will likely not have the love of knowledge in such regard as scholars; they are likely interested in the utilitarian needs of society, and in neo-liberal capitalist democracies this means economic progress.
In short, there ought to be an overhaul of scholarship. How those so aware of the system and its workings, find themselves helplessly entrenched in it? Let us overcome this false consciousness. Long live the love of knowledge. Question everything. Question yourself.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Summarizing Details

Summarizing is a crude word to describe the constructive process of writing for the social sciences. The point is rather to pick up the information relevant to one’s research and perspective, thereby reducing it to a fraction of the observable event. Through my camera lens I am forced to frame the world in a rectangular slice. Depending on the amount of light available, and the type of lens I have affixed to my SLR, my depth of field may be limited thereby flattening the rectangular field I perceive behind the lens. In this plane of focus, more reduction occurs; the rate at which my shutter acts will vary the temporal recording. Once the emulsion is exposed and the sliver of reality as perceived by our eyes is firmly set in frame, production begins. Choices are made here such as whether to push or pull process the negatives to fake fast or slow film respectively, or maybe a cross process of colour slide film to flatten the colours, make them punchy, and saturated. At last, the final choices are made, such as paper, size, colour balance, exposure times, and areas to burn.
This process is very much about disciplinary discretion. The final product is a form of communication. The image must feel like it conveys the message that the photographer had intended. If the language used in the medium has an intuitive syntax, it garners success for the speaker as the audience will be persuade to read the text as the speaker had intended. This discipline bound fluency comes from rigour in ones own craft; adopting accepted or acceptable methodologies, keeping the reader always in mind, and always asking questions. All these constructive modes have properties that ultimately reduce all the knowledge attainable into comprehensive, yet focused assertions and descriptions of and about the world that which we inhabit.
The way we nuance the way truth is expressed to serve our needs. Much like Becker’s cartography example, in order to represent what has most cultural utility, some areas of a map need to be distorted, to turn the 3D spherical world, its entirety, into a 2D representation slicing away the unnecessary details. Should we be suspect of maps? We can certainly criticize the choices made in expressing the truth; we can draw attention to motivations for distortions, omissions, embellishments. However, the map remains an accepted and acceptable (in most cases) representation of geography. Whether all-inclusive mariner’s charts or the map you draw on a napkin for the after party, we accept the limitations of the method, and seldom question why it doesn’t accurately represent reality. As described by Becker, for an absolutely truthful representation, you would have to keep a full sized replica of the planet earth in your back pocket. It would be highly ineffective at assisting you in finding your way, and certainly not as intuitive as a map ought to be. And so, as a constructor of social meaning, I must refine my output using the tools of my trade to accurately represent the truth of the world I see around me, while reflexive enough to be aware of my biases and politics.