Reflection: Public Sociology in the Age of Social Media
by Keiran Healy, Duke University
I informally examine how the idea of public sociology has been affected by the rise of social media. New social media platforms disintermediate communication, make people more visible, and encourage public life to be measured. They tend to move the discipline from a situation where some people self-consciously do “public sociology” to one where more sociologists unselfconsciously do sociology in public. I discuss the character of such “latently public” work, the opportunities and difficulties it creates for individuals, and its tendency to be associated with academic fields that believe in what they are doing.
In the summer of 2004, in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy made an argument for what he called “Public Sociology.” 1 At around the same time, the modern era of social media was just beginning to come into being. Facebook was founded that February. A year or so later, when “For Public Sociology” was arriving as a printed journal article in people’s mailboxes, Mark Zuckerberg began expanding Facebook membership to universities other than Harvard. A year after that it was available to more or less everyone. Twitter was founded in July of 2006. The iPhone launched in 2008, helping precipitate a revolution in computing that is still going on. Just as Burawoy was calling for sociologists to engage with the public, the infrastructure of publicity, the dominant ways of engaging with an audience, and some of the basic assumptions about being a scholar in public were all about to change substantially.