Letter From the Chair, Winter 2018

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1, pp 1-2.

Ron Jacobs,
University at Albany, SUNY

Fake News. Twitter bots. Troll farms. More than ever, it seems, there is a crisis of confidence permeating the public sphere. How can we participate in discussions about matters of real concern when we have no idea if the person we are debating is even a real person? How can we discuss current events if we cannot distinguish between real and fake news? How is rational discussion possible when armies of strategic communicators navigate digital spaces looking to inflame the passions and promote polarization? What happens to social trust when politicians label as “fake news” any inconvenient information, when they question the motivation of critical journalists as well as the legitimacy of an independent press? And what can cultural sociology tell us about these questions?

A good place to start, perhaps, is Knorr-Cetina’s (1999, 2005) work on epistemic cultures. In a world increasingly focused on knowledge and information, Knorr-Cetina argues, it becomes imperative to think about the different cultures in which knowledges get produced. Epistemic cultures refer to “those sets of practices, arrangements, and mechanisms bound together by necessity, affinity, and historical coincidence that, in a given area of professional expertise, makeup how we know what we know” (Knorr-Cetina 2005: 67). Knorr-Cetina’s research demonstrates that there is a good deal of epistemic diversity in the worlds of science, and even more epistemic diversity when we move into other worlds of knowledge and information. Rather than seeing knowledge as one component of social and political life, we need to see different arenas of social life as embodying their own distinctive epistemic cultures. From this perspective, a key issue has to do with the institutional arrangements and the social practices that develop to deal with the exchange and the processing of information that is emerging from different epistemic cultures.

In today’s digital world, figuring out how to process different epistemic cultures is not nearly as straightforward as it once was. Mapping the new terrain is the central goal currently being pursued by Fuyuki Kurasawa, a cultural sociologist from Canada who currently holds the York University Research Chair in Global Digital Citizenship. In many of today’s digital spaces, Kurasawa argues, the dominant epistemic cultures are shaped by the practices of the troll, who posts deliberately offensive messages designed to provoke an angry and emotional response. The goal of the troll is to disrupt and to polarize, not to engage in rational debate. Viewed from the epistemic culture of the troll, a serious presentation of facts is met with instant mockery. The effective response is not to provide more facts, with the hope of persuading people to change their opinion. A more effective response may be to adopt the practices of the troll, provoking the original troll into an emotional over-reaction. Of course, this strategy is not equally available to all actors. As Kurasawa shows in his preliminary research, it may be effective and available to feminist activists responding to online misogynistic harassment, but it is less available to scientists responding to climate change denialists. It is less available to journalists responding to charges that they producing “fake news”, as I found in a recent study of journalism after Trump (Jacobs 2017). The deployment of a different or a new epistemic culture is less possible when the actor who is thinking about deploying it still hopes to derive expertise and professional standing from a prior one.

To be sure, even within those epistemic cultures defined by science and rationality, internal critiques and alternative criteria of distinction have been circulating for some time now. Since the 1960s at least, we have witnessed repeated and influential counter-performances challenging the somber seriousness of science and scholarship in most spaces of cultural and intellectual life. In the older and more mainstream epistemic cultures, though, the counter-performer has generally confronted a discursive terrain where seriousness is signified as pure. The effect of the conflict has most often been to reinforce the sacredness of the epistemic culture that was being challenged. Matters are different in the digital spaces of today. How can a scientist, an intellectual, or a journalist engage with digital soldiers trained on troll farms, without thoroughly undermining the professional expertise they have carefully built up as well as the sacred discourses of evaluation upon which their expertise depends? How can they correct mistakes and characterizations being circulated by the thousand by Twitter bots, without feeding into the very algorithms that are making the offensive tweet go viral? These are complicated challenges, and ones which are unlikely to be resolved by the extended argument of the columnist or the scientific practices of peer review.

Great as the normative and the practical challenges may be, I have every confidence that cultural sociologists will “follow the controversies”, providing nuanced accounts of what is going on and compelling explanations for how things have developed the way they have, and not otherwise. There is a long tradition of sociological scholarship addressing these issues. And I look forward to reading about the research of my colleagues in the Culture Section, who no doubt are exploring these questions as well as many others.

REFERENCES

Knorr-Cetina, Karen, 1999. Epistemic Cultures. Harvard University Press.

Knorr-Cetina, Karen, 2005. “Culture in Global Knowledge Societies: Knowledge Cultures and Epistemic Cultures”, in The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture, ed. M. Jacobs and N. Hanrahan. Blackwell, pp. 65-79.

Jacobs, Ronald N., 2017. “Journalism After Trump”, American Journal of Cultural Sociology 5, 3: 409-425.

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