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Class and communication

DanielMiller1 June 2013

Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

I don’t really want to study social class, every researcher on English society seems obsessed with it, as are the general public. Consider the recent reaction to the BBC Great British Class Survey or books such as Watching the English. But after just two months fieldwork in The Groves I am immersed in a whole slew of such differentiations. How far do the people of High Grove look down on those of Low Grove? Is everyone now using the term ‘social housing’ as a proxy for not just lower class but all sorts of problematic behaviour they associate with that class? Can I ignore stories of parent’s weeping when their child fails to get into their chosen school? I would like to have focused on something more original, but the integrity of ethnography starts with ignoring what you would like your study to be about, and going with your evidence.

When I do research on class I find I fluctuate in my perspective. Sometimes I see through welfare glasses where class looks like differential life chances, and the sensibility of fairness. I remain incensed by the degree that it is still the mere luck of being born to lower income families and lower educational expectations that largely determines life’s opportunities and the likelihood of suffering and deprivation. This remains true of the UK where inequalities still mainly stem from chance not ability. But I also see class with other glasses that pick up all sorts of nuances and playfulness of style as social differences which make up a fascinating tapestry of distinctions in clothing music and style, without necessarily meaning a whole lot in terms of objective life chances.

I may have inherited this duality from the French anthropologist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Much of his research concerned poverty and the relationship between education and subsequent social mobility. Others, such as his book Distinction are associated with issues of taste. The recent BBC Great British Class Survey is a pop version of the work of Mike Savage which is in turn a pop (or updated) version of Bourdieu. But Bourdieu was less divided since with the legacy of Marxist writing he still saw taste and life chances as two sides of the same coin, which guaranteed the status of class as an object of study.

How will class relate to the study of digital communications? Differential digital literacy may still reflect class as welfare. Other differences are more complex. Some quite hip young people are into Instagram used for all sorts of ‘edgy’ photo effects. But others with a serious interest in photography see this as an inauthentic cheat that devalues photography as art. Maybe this is typical of the democratization of skill? There are early indications. There seems to be a stronger digital presence generally including higher usage of Instagram in High Grove. Does this run parallel with evidence its high street has the delicatessens and art galleries, while Low Grove has few such class markers?

I am suspicious of correlations as evidence of cause. My work with the hospice suggests that it was often high status families who were most reserved and cut off from social communications and ended up suffering social isolation as a result. So higher status may not translate as advantage. Class is cross-cut by gender and age, and Facebook seems to be migrating from younger to older. Also social differentiation fragments into many different competitions. As Bourdieu once put it there is a struggle for hierarchy between the different hierarchies. So things will be complex, but that is the nature of ethnography, and if don’t manage to tease out these tangled threads, who will. Fortunately we have another two years to try and make sense of such things.

Doing stuff, and telling people about it

DanielMiller1 April 2013

Photo by ehnmark (Creative Commons)

Photo by ehnmark (Creative Commons)

Ok, this is a seriously big project. Starting from today, there will be eight simultenous 15-month ethnographies taking place in fieldsites around the world. To have funding for something on this scale devoted to a given topic is unique. Given that, we have a responsibility to do things which transcend the academic outputs we are initially funded to produce. There has to be an altogether different ambition for the results of this project that goes way beyond our remit. To signify that ambition we recently appointed Sheba Mohammid as Director of Policy and Implementation and also devised a new title for the project called the Global Social Media Impact Study with its own website at gsmis.org. What these changes signify is that even while the main fieldwork is about to start, we are thinking about two future developments.

The first is to ensure there is an applied outcome and the second concerns dissemination. As it happens, the very first project to be carried out to conclusion was my own research on behalf of a hospice, just North-West of London, where for six months I studied usage by end-of-life cancer patients and the hospice itself. I have not written any academic papers, but have constructed an extensive report detailing recommended changes that use this research directly to improve communications with patients. It’s early days, but I am optimistic several of these will be implemented. Once we feel we have gained enhanced knowledge of how people use social media, then we hope that Sheba will help us to find case-studies in Trinidad. This partly because we would like to do more than simply align ourselves with the usual welfare and critical stance of social science. We want to commit to projects that demonstrably make peoples lives better. But at the same time we want to test ourselves. If we are making claims that we will understand social media usage better through our studies, then the best evidence may be not just academic papers, but creating social media projects ourselves that demonstrably work better as a result of implementing our findings.

The second shift is intended to ensure that whatever it is we learn from our study is conveyed beyond the academic audience. So under our original title ‘Social Networking Sites and Social Science‘ we intend to produce considerable academic output, but the Global Social Media Impact Study is about using the same social media we study to also disseminate the results to non-academic popular audiences. Amongst other initiatives is the hope we will raise money for films directed by Meghana Gupta. We are looking to co-create, through user generated content, enhanced e-books, perhaps a MOOC (freely available university course). Sheba spent seven years implementing e-policy and e-learning for the Trinidad and Tobago government and has been educating our team in these areas of implementation. She will carry this out working with myself together with Jo Tacchi and Heather Horst at RMIT Melbourne. If we end up having things we feel are worth saying then it makes sense to be active in soliciting an audience. The gsmis.org website is a start towards that goal.