Why don’t more sociologists blog?

Originally posted on Contech, a new sociology of tech blog we’ve started over at contexts. Check it out.

Since starting Contexts Blogs, I’ve had the chance to talk to lots of blogging sociologists. I’ve also had the chance to have a lot of non-blogging sociologists firmly say “No!” to my attempts to turn them into blogging sociologists. So over the last year or so I’ve given a lot of thought to why more sociologists don’t blog, and of course the related question of what drives those who do. Here’s my current take on the topic:

The most common reason people give for not blogging is that they “don’t have time.” Of course, as is usually the case with this excuse, it’s not much of a reason. Of course we’re all pressed for time. Yet most of us manage to do things that are not all-work all-the-time. What you’re really saying when you say you “don’t have time” is that while there may be aspects of blogging that appeal to you, there are other downsides or barriers to blogging that outweigh the perceived benefit. Not to make it sound all “rational choice” or anything either (Hey, I know my audience): I think people get the feeling they wouldn’t like blogging (or don’t like blogging, if they’ve already dipped their toes in a bit), and when you press people on what it is about blogging that scares them off, it’s not “time” necessarily, but other factors that make them uncomfortable with the idea:

Expertise: If you look at most “sociology blogs,” a good percentage of the posts are not “academic sociology” in any way. They’re bloggers, who happen to be sociologists and sometimes write about sociology, but frequently just blog about their lives, current events, news in the discipline, etc. In other words, many would probably be bloggers if they weren’t sociologists. ((I know I fit in this group: you’d be hard-pressed to find a sociology-related post on my personal blog.)) And when they do blog about sociology, the aim isn’t to do “public sociology” really: it’s insider shop talk & if people want to follow along, great. If not, fine. ((Obviously there are very successful counter-examples. Our own Jessie’s RacismReview is an obvious example…though Jessie also has several blogs.))

However, when you tell a sociologist “Hey, you should blog,” that’s not usually what they have in mind. A blog is supposed to be some grand “public sociology” project, where you bring your knowledge to the masses. In particular, you bring general knowledge to the masses. Yet many sociologists are not comfortable speaking in public about anything beyond their tiny niche. This makes sociologists tough interviews for the media, and it’s not ideal for blogging either. If you’re blogging primarily as a sociologist, then that can be kind of paralyzing to the extent that you feel you’re “speaking for the field.”

Audience: Of course, we “speak for the field” all the time. In our teaching and also in our writing: it’s called a “literature review.” Sociologists are very comfortable writing for a small audience they share a lot of common knowldge with. There’s good & bad that comes from this, but when it comes to blogging, the fact that anyone can read what you write—and that they might, gasp, misinterpret something you write—terrifies some people. The only safe writing is writing where you’re guaranteed that people reading it will think exactly like you and likely agree with you as a result, right? The fact that a few months of blogging can be worth more than a career’s worth of academic publishing in your Google search results scares people, too. ((Though more open access publishing might help with that.))

Then there are bloggers. To blog, you have to be comfortable with an unknown audience. Most bloggers I’ve talked to about this admit they mostly write for themselves. Not because of vanity (well, not only because of vanity anyway), but because the process of writing is something they enjoy, and if they can find a small community of readers & fellow bloggers, it’s a lot of fun.

Technological: I’m a geek, so to me it seems natural that academics, who are, at root, experts in knowledge & information, should be attracted to information technology. However, there’s a strong anti-technology aesthetic in academia. Academics who “don’t get computers” are often proud of this fact, bragging that they still handwrite their notes and papers and prefer the chalkboard to powerpoint or even transparencies. Perhaps this is just a rational response, for an expert to react strongly against the utopian notion that technology is going to let everyone be an expert. Perhaps it’s just a response to reading student paper after student paper plagiarizing Wikipedia. Whatever the reason, academics are generally hesitant to adopt new technology. Of course there are exceptions, but in general it’s perfectly acceptable to reject technology and those that are “early adopters” are often viewed as naive, frivolous and kind of obnoxious. (And maybe we are.)

So my point is that asking sociologists to blog is asking them to engage with (potential) audiences they’re not comfortable with, about a wider range of topics than they’re used to speaking about in a public & authoritative way, using a publishing vehicle towards which they are, at best, unfamiliar and, at worst, cynical & distrustful.

The other side of the coin is who could & should be blogging: people comfortable writing for many audiences; who feel constrained by only ever speaking about their tiny little corner of sociology & are both adventurous enough to write about a wide variety of topics yet still articulate, honest & humble enough to be clear about when they’re taking educated guesses, when they are truly representing the state of the research and when they’re just having fun; and people who see blogging & the internet for what they are: potentially powerful tools that can be either good, bad or ugly depending on how they’re used.