Race, Racism: the Internet: 10 Things Sociologists Should Be Researching

Race, Racism: the Internet: 10 Things Sociologists Should Be Researching
Posted: 20 Aug 2010 11:23 AM PDT
There was exactly one session on "Race and New Media" among the hundreds of panels at the recent American Sociological Association meetings last week in Atlanta. The panel was interesting, thought-provoking and presented by a diverse group of sociologists, and I’m not just saying that because I organized it. I think there should be lots more research like this.

One of the main points I make in my book Cyber Racism is that white supremacy has entered the digital era, and that means it’s changing, morphing into new forms. Some of those centuries-old components continue to exist, but now they exist alongside new forms of racism, such as cloaked websites. This is true not only of the extremist groups I’ve studied, it’s also true of lots of other dimensions of race and racism. This seems like an arena ripe for sociological investigation, yet I continue to be puzzled by the fact that there’s not more research in this area.

Within sociology there’s a gap between researchers who critically study race and those who study the Internet. I talked with several prominent sociologists who study Internet and society at the meetings, and they concurred with my assessment of the field. As one scholar told me when I mentioned the few submissions I received for the “Race and New Media” panel: “That’s because no one studies that.” Another prominent scholar suggested that the problem is that the critical race folks just don’t know the Internet research and vice versa. I tend to agree. I talk to people who know the Internet and the research about it, and they generally don’t know much about critical race scholarship. And, the people I talk to who are critical race scholars, generally don’t know much about the Internet.

In many ways, the study of race and the Internet has been ceded by sociologists to scholars working in other fields such as history, psychology, communications, cultural studies, and political science. There’s good work going on in those fields, most notably Lisa Nakamura’swork, which I admire and have mentioned here before. One of the things I enjoy about the growing field of Internet-related research is that it’s interdisciplinary, so maybe it’s not worth raising these intra-sociology disciplinary issues, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity for the field. Part of the problem here is that the Internet changes quickly, and sociology is just slow. One of my graduate professors used to refer to sociology as “slow journalism”. If journalism is the first draft of history, sociology is the re-draft of history in many ways. I think that sociologists have something valuable to offer in terms of our understanding of how the Internet is transforming patterns of human social behavior. While lots of sociologists who study race are using the Internet as a tool for their research (everything from Google Scholar to analyzing messages on email listservs), only a very few are considering the Internet as an object of study, and exploring the ways it’s changing the production of and resistance to race and racism.

So, in an attempt to suggest ways to bridge this gap, I’ve sketched out 10 areas I think sociologists should be researching:

infrastructure / design – How computers and the “graphic user interface” (GUI) – like web browsers are designed affects how people use the Internet. In 2008, I wrote about the development of a custom browser, Blackbird, designed for use by African Americans, that cause some uproar. How does the way that interfaces are designed affect the way people use the Internet and how is race implicated in this? There’s terrific research on user-centered design being done by sociologist Nalini Kotamraju and some on open source software by Jon Smajda which highlight the useful bridge between a deep knowledge of infrastructure and software design. Michelle White (cultural studies) has done some interesting work on this (why is that little hand always white?), and of course, Nakamura’s relevant here again. I don’t know of any one in sociology doing research like this on race and interface design.

industry - The leading tech firms in Silicon Valley are dominated by white men and a few white women, yet the manual labor of putting together circuit boards that run computers is largely done by immigrant and global south women. How does the predominantly white tech industry located in the global north and the immigrant / global south labor that powers the Internet say about race and technology? (See, J. Shih, Circumventing Discrimination: Gender and Ethnic Strategies in Silicon Valley, Gender & Society, 2006, 20; (2): 177-206).

gaming - Literally millions of people are playing online games, and meeting in person at gaming conferences, yet this social phenomenon is going largely unremarked upon by sociologists. Lori Kendall’s Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub (UCPress, 2002)looks at the reproduction of race and gender in one of these game spaces, but I see little other work on this important topic by sociologists.
popular culture / fandom – There are huge – again in the millions – of online groups for everything from tennis to celebrities to popular fiction. How is being a “fan” shaped by race, and how is online “fandom” in popular culture shaped by race and racism? Sociologist Sarah Gatson has explored some of this in her work and is seeking papers [pdf] for a special issue of a journal about this.

mobile technology – It’s been a few years since Howard Rheingold (whom I think of as an honorary sociologist) wrote his groundbreaking book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, and I’ve yet to see anyone extend that work to look at mobile technology and race. There’s research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project documenting that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to access the Internet through mobile devices. What does this suggest for all that talk of the “digital divide” among sociologists a few years ago?

identity + community - In the early days of the Internet, lots of people thought that we would go online to “experiment” with identity, to engage in “identity tourism” to use Nakamura’s phrase. Yet, that’s not turned out to be the case. In fact, the way people use the Internet most often is to reaffirm their offline identities. Sociologist Emily Ignacio’s excellent book Building Diaspora: Filipino Community Formation on the Internet (Rutgers UP, 2005) is an example of this type of work and there should be more.

social movements : I mentioned my book on racist social movements, and I’d like to see more done on progressive social movements around race, such as the march organized around the Jena6, which was mobilized primarily through young, African American bloggers. One of the strategies I used in my research was to examine movement discourse pre-Internet and post-Internet, and this is another angle that could be pursued by those interested in race and the offline mobilization of social movements around race.
racist framing in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter – Social media is framed by racist language, and within a larger white racial frame, yet there’s very little sociology that looks at this. Stephanie Laudone (graduate student at Fordham) is at work on a dissertation that takes up some of these issues in Facebook.
health/science - Internet users increasingly look for health and scientific knowledge online. Victoria Pitts (a CUNY colleague) has written about these issues as they relate to gender, (see Illness and Internet empowerment: writing and reading breast cancer in cyberspace, Health, 2004, Vol 8 (1):33-60), but I don’t know of any similar research that looks critically at race and health.
surveillance culture – We live in what some have called a ‘surveillance culture.’ Sociologist Simone Brown is writing about some of these surveillance technologies as they relate to border crossings (fascinating work), and there are implications of this surveillance culture for understanding race and the Internet. As just one example, given the millions of Black and Latino men locked up in the U.S., what are the implications of the “inmate locator” websites run by state and federal governments? How do systems of incarceration work together with online registries and databases of Black/Latino men to shape racial inequality in the digital era?
Of course, this is just a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what I think are the promising areas of investigation for sociologists. Where I know about people’s work in these areas, I’ve included it (let me know if I left your work out and i’ll add it). So, what did I miss? What are some other areas of research?