Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research
First Monday

The Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research by Ran Chermesh

Abstract
The Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research by Ran Chermesh
This article describes an initiative to incorporate the Internet into the sociology curriculum of a behavioral sciences department in Israel. The original plan of the project included running a small pilot course for the first year and introducing a large, semi-required, course in the following year. The agenda of the course treated the Internet as a source of raw data (content analysis of chats, of newspapers' headlines, data archives, etc.), as a source of processed data (official statistics), and a source of theoretical information (academic databases). Even though the pilot course confirmed the feasibility of the project, implementation of the semi-required course was blocked. A system approach, including the setting, the audiences (colleagues and students), and the course itself, is used to explain the unsatisfactory outcome.

Contents

Introduction
The Setting
The Audiences
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

The virtual reality of the Internet poses a challenge to sociology. Sociologists are faced with a new form of reality. We should both be able to comprehend it and to use it for enhancing comprehension of our day-to-day non-internet reality. We must take this new facet into consideration when we design our teaching programs.

Jones [1] reports that "college students are heavy users of the Internet compared to the general population. Use of the Internet is a part of college students' daily routine, in part because they have grown up with computers. It is integrated into their daily communication habits and has become a technology as ordinary as the telephone or television."

There are quite a few online resources on the Internet (for example socialogical resources at the University of Delaware Library and the SocioWeb). These sources share the belief that "the Internet can help to unite the sociological community in ways never before possible" [2].

Printed "how-to" literature is also available on the market (Gongaware et al., 2001). The common denominator for much of this source material is that Internet use by sociology students is conceived as a technical matter (finding, using, and documenting sources, source reliability, communicating with e-mail, etc.)

This paper summarizes my experience with an experimental course which was originally designed to test the feasibility of inaugurating a perspective required course, and which became a small standard elective course. The objectives of the course were improvement of students' networking skills and the shaping of their attitudes towards an extensive use the network for sociological research. The main conclusion is that the incorporation of the Internet into a sociological curriculum requires a much wider, non-technical perspective than that usually assumed.

 

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The Setting

I am a staff member of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel. The department is an interdisciplinary unit, composed of anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists. Its undergraduate program supplies students with a qualification to continue their graduate studies both in sociology-anthropology [3] and in psychology in all institutions of higher learning in Israel. The program includes a solid core of methodology courses: statistics, research methods, and computing. Until the introduction of the course program "The Uses of Networking for Sociological Research," the program had no sign of awareness of the Internet. Even though students had access to networking, it was used solely for statistical analysis. Each student was supplied with an e-mail account, but this option was not incorporated in the teaching program.

Most Behavioral Sciences undergraduate students are currently enrolled in a single major program, in which their entire study plan is taken within this major. The only option offered at present is in psychology-sociology-anthropology. This multidisciplinary feature of the program is currently under strong disintegrative pressures. Members of all three mentioned disciplines press for a more pronounced emphasis of their own fields and for widening the range of choices offered to our students. This trend led to a revision of our methodology program, to a scheme oriented more specifically to the traditions of each of the three disciplines. In the past, students were required to study experimental design, survey research methods, and qualitative methods. The new program allows them to limit their choice to two of these three methodology tracts. The methodological requirements in sociology are by far less than those demanded in psychology. Therefore, a slot of two credit units could be spared for the new course, "The Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research."

 

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The Audiences

Setting up a new course, as we all know, requires cooperation of two main audiences, colleagues and students. (In addition, technical and administrative resources are needed. These, not withstanding their importance, will not be discussed here).

Colleagues

A course on sociological methods is a tool for promoting substantive objectives. In the statistics course we teach regression to supply our students with tools for conducting multi-variable analysis of a subject of interest. We show them how to use the statistical packages of SAS or SPSS. We expect them to analyze data on work and occupations, family relationships, deviance, and other topics. Therefore, a method class is not an independent entity. It is a service course for other substantive courses, conducted by other colleagues. Thus, the introduction of an innovative methods course cannot operate in a vacuum. If it nourishes the needs of other instructors, then the course will become integrated in the curriculum.

My first step in the planning stage was conducting a survey of needs. I tried to find out what my colleagues were interested in. Since only a few of our staff were aware of the educational potential of the net, I had to fill in the gap. I tried to learn what they were teaching and what were they expecting from their students. Then, I turned to the Internet and tried to locate resources of information that could satisfy my colleagues' interests. Table 1 shows some examples for courses and network sources available for their teaching:

 

Table 1: Sociology Courses and their Corresponding Internet Sources

Course
Network Sources
   
Sociology of the cinema
Internet Movie Database
Sociology of industrial relations
EIROnline: European Industrial Relations Observatory Online
The Israeli society
Ha'retz Archive
Economic sociology
Publications and Data of the Bank of Israel
Sociological Theory
Dead Sociologists Index
Sociology of the family
National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect
On death and dying
Statistical Yearbook of Israel
Sociology of organizations
Giving Wisely: The Website of Israeli Nonprofit and Philanthropic Organizations

 

The list in Table 1 includes sources of various types. Some sources are qualitative, summarizing ideas of classic theoreticians (Dead Sociologists Index), others include research reports (Publications and Data of the Bank of Israel; EIROnline: European Industrial Relations Observatory Online). Some supply statistical data (Statistical Yearbook of Israel), Others — a newspaper (Ha'retz Archive). Another major source type is the database (Internet Movie Database; Giving Wisely: The Website of Israeli Non-Profit and Philanthropic Organizations). Most of these sources have never been used as teaching sources. A large majority of these sources were not even known to most staff members.

Since staff awareness and interest, are major prerequisites for class success, bringing our staff to this state is one of the most difficult aspects of running and institutionalizing this course. I envisioned two routes for accomplishing this goal, direct and indirect promotion. The direct promotion strategy entails acts of consumer education. Information must be distributed and success stories must be inculcated. The indirect route treats the student as change agent, as the tool by which new methods and sources are delivered to his or her instructor.

From the beginning of my promotion efforts it was evident that the consumer education model as applied to colleagues is inapplicable for our academic setting. In the academy, each staff member gains his or her status from being an expert. Experts act as dominant persons, not as equals, and even less, as consumers. A partial solution is to attract experts to a new idea is by adding them to the team. Whenever this was possible, and it happened just once, a staff member was invited to teach her own network sources to class' students. This approach proved successful. Both students and the staff member enjoyed their interaction. However, this was a case of converting the already converted. The staff member who had acquired network skills was not a typical staff member. She was an exception. Thus, this solution had limited applicability.

The partner in the indirect route is the student. Students are not typical change agents in academic settings. They are inferior in power and prestige. They are "guests" in a semi-static hosting environment. The larger the number of qualified students, the more motivated and qualified they are, the higher their chance to succeed as change agents.

Students

The course "The Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research" was planned as a semi-required course. This, since it was announced that admittance to all research seminars in sociology was dependent on the successful completion of this course. (The requirement is not absolute since students can complete their undergraduate studies without taking any seminar in sociology. They can do it by taking a seminar in psychology and another one in anthropology). We estimate an enrollment of 150-200 students for this course when it would reach its semi-requirement status (academic year 2000-2001). Since teaching of the course takes place exclusively in a computer lab with twenty computers, running a full fledged course would entail eight to ten sessions, a team of teaching assistants, and a significant allocation of computing resources. Prior to entering this venture, a humbler setting was chosen. In the academic year 1999-2000 a smaller, elective course was offered. The current report is based on experience gained in this course.

The difference between a self-selected small group of students and student composition of a required course is self-evident. Self-selected students are exceptionally motivated about the class subject. They seek guidance. They are partners, not just passive enrolled figures.

Fifteen students enrolled to class. Their level of Web knowledge varied, some were geeks, and others were almost computer illiterates. They all shared enthusiasm and team spirit. This sense of responsibility enabled a successful completion of two assignments: construction of a help Web page and a preliminary research project.

The Course

Our first two topics were search engines and information evaluation methods.

Research oriented search strategies can gain a lot from cumulative searches. Students were taught conventional searching methods (search engines like Yahoo!, AltaVista, or HotBot), but special effort was invested in familiarizing students with tools like Karnak, Informant and Northern Light Search Alerts. Students selected a research topic and accumulated information for their projects using these quasi-bibliographic tools.

Since our main goal was enhancing the use of the Internet for scientific goals, acquiring a critical approach to the Internet was of utmost importance. Internet Detective is an interactive tutorial on evaluating the quality of Internet resources. All students spent time with this tutorial. Each prospective assignment had to be checked and validated using the Detective's three sets of criteria (content, form, and process). Table 2 shows the complete criteria scheme:

 

Table 2: Criteria for the Evaluation of Web Documents

Content Criteria
Form Criteria
Process Criteria
Validity
Navigation
Information Integrity
Accuracy
User Support
Site Integrity
Authority
Appropriate Technologies
System Integrity
Uniqueness
   
Completeness
   
Coverage
   

 

The first three sessions of the course were devoted to acquiring search and critical evaluation skills for Web sources. The following ten sessions dealt with two main topics: Internet sources for sociological research and collaborative work on student research projects. Students learned to use Web sources such as the ones listed in Table 1.

The students were required to complete two assignments, publishing a Web page and preparing a research project.

The objectives of the first assignment, designing of a Web page, were two: technical and substantive. Students learned the basics of Web design, opening a window to the potentialities of the Web (text, graphics, audio). The substantive objective, though, gained much more attention. All Web pages had to be written as manuals, with the student-community aimed as their clients. Some manuals dealt with technical topics like searching, user groups, data archives, or chats, while others dealt with substantive areas (sexual harassment, ethnic stratification, industrial relations, etc.). While instructions how to locate content-specific information on the Web was the main topic, a major issue of concern was a demonstration of sifting capabilities and openness for objectivity. Many students experienced difficulties in implementation. Not surprisingly, the choice of a topic was heavily related to personal beliefs and ideology. One student who proposed to prepare a document dealing with sexual harassment regarded her topic as socially and politically relevant. She was instructed, however, to supply links to sources which showed that not all complaints were found right, and that not only females suffer from sex harassments. Males are also victims. All Web pages created by the students have been published on the Web.

Writing a research paper was the second assignment in the course. A single constraint was imposed on the student; all work had to be done in the computer lab. Neither library visits nor personal visits in the instructor's office were allowed. All work had to be done behind a "virtually" closed computer lab door. This requirement was not presented as a realistic research constraint. All students knew that a closed lab is not an optimal setting for doing research. Still, I defended this requirement as a means for strengthening Web research techniques. Students interpreted this instruction quite loosely. E-mail could be done from the lab, and was a legitimate tool for sending inquiries. Chat and Usenet routes were widely used. However, students faced an unexpected difficulty. They tried to use the Web in a library-like setting. They spent many hours searching in commercial databases, looking for abstracts and full-text articles. This was a legitimate option. Still, most students hesitated to use the Internet as a data source. They were oversocialized by their research methods and statistics courses. Is the data representative? How do I draw a sample from the Internet? Should I use statistical analysis and if so, should it be advanced statistical analysis, or can I just use descriptive statistics? Although most of these questions deserved lengthy discussions, the simple answer was no, in most cases you cannot draw a random sample on the Internet. Still, stories, reports, discussions, all these can be useful raw data for a sociological project. (A more detailed example will be presented below). But, yes, you can run statistical analysis on Web data, but in most cases the analysis should not use over-sophisticated techniques. Enjoy the richness of the Internet. Do not squeeze it to a few boring numbers.

One team chose a topic worth a more detailed description. The students were interested in applying Durkheim's suicide classification to the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel. Can we classify immigrants as altruistic, anomic, fatalistic or egoistic?

The Web supplies useful sources for comprehending Durkheim's work (for example: in the Dead Sociologists Index). This literature survey can be summarized in the following way [4]:

"Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according to the relation of the actor to his society. When men become "detached from society," when they are thrown upon their own devices and loosen the bonds that previously had tied them to their fellow, they are prone to egoistic, or individualistic, suicide. When the normative regulations surrounding individual conduct are relaxed and hence fail to curb and guide human propensities, men are susceptible to succumbing to anomic suicide. To put the matter differently, when the restraints of structural integration, as exemplified in the operation of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men become prone to egoistic suicide; when the collective conscience weakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.

In addition to egoistic and anomic types of suicide, Durkheim refers to altruistic and fatalistic suicide. The latter is touched upon only briefly in his work, but the former is of great importance for an understanding of Durkheim's general approach. Altruistic suicide refers to cases in which suicide can be accounted for by overly strong regulation of individuals, as opposed to lack of regulation."

If so, can we argue that some people emigrate since they find themselves in an unregulated social environment? Can we locate people who leave their country since their integration with their original community loosened? Do people move out when their land of origin fails to stand their idealistic expectations? Can we use the Internet to test these ideas? Does the Web supply data for such an endeavor?

Biased by their prudent methodological background, the first stage of this project was highly frustrating. How can we build a sample of Russian immigrants? How can we collect data on the level of integration of each and every immigrant? There is no way that it can be done! Still, can we use Web data for applying Durkheim's classification and for demonstrating it potential usefulness? Yes, this can be done. What you need is a variety of life stories. You need reports of immigrants on their experience in their country of origin. These stories, available in many forums, Usenet groups, and Internet versions of newspapers, for example, can supply a keen insight into the emigration phenomenon. In addition, some supportive statistical data, supplied by The Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel), can provide additional insight.

The Russian Emigration project, as written by the students is not a full-fledged sociological study. A Web-constrained analysis of the equivalence between suicide and emigration cannot be tested in a limited work like the reported example. Still, it both led the students to pursue their project in a second course and to serve as a demonstration for the didactic use of a course entitled "The Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research" for anyone interested in integrating the network to academic work in the social sciences.

The Semi-required Course

The experience gained by the reported experimental course should assist in designing a much larger, less intimate semi-required course. This course will face a much less enthusiastic group of students, this course will have to compete on the limited resources of an academic department, and what is more important, this course will have to gain the legitimacy of the academic staff. The usefulness of the course for a post-millennium student has already been demonstrated. The feasibility of such an endeavor is still pending.

 

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Conclusion

"Colleges and universities might be experiencing an Internet generation gap between professors and students in terms of their Internet usage interests or abilities" [5]. Is it a generation gap? Does this gap have organizational and professional sources in addition to the self evident generation gap? Jones [6] blames universities for under-investment in staff training. This may be true, but is it a cause of staff reluctance to get involved in Internet-related activities, or is it a symptom of an inherent incompatibility between the rigid, hierarchical structure of modern higher education institutions and the open, democratic structure of the Internet? The current report does not supply a clear answer to this question, but it surely raises it for further thought. End of article

 

About the Author

Ran Chermesh is a sociologist in the Behavioral Sciences Department of Ben-Gurion University.
E-mail: rancherm@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

 

Acknowledgments

An earlier version of this paper was submitted in "Internet Research 1.0: The State of the Interdiscipline", The First Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, 14-17 September 2000, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

 

Notes

1. Jones, 2002, p. 2.

2. "An Overview Of The SocioWeb", at http://www.socioweb.com/~markbl/socioweb/overview.html, accessed 4 December 2002.

3. Israeli universities offer only MA programs in Sociology-Anthropology. Pure Anthropology or Sociology programs do not exist.

4. From http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/DSS/Durkheim/DURKW2.HTML, accessed 4 December 2002.

5. Jones, 2002, p. 9.

6. Ibid.

 

References

Timothy B. Gongaware, Jeniffer C. Koella, and Michael Keene, 2001. The Mayfield Quick View Guide to the Internet for Students of Sociology. Version 2.0. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield.

Steve Jones, 2002 The Internet Goes to College, How Students are Living in the Future with Today's Technology. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington D.C., at http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=71, accessed 4 December 2002.


Editorial history

Paper received 19 October 2002; accepted 29 November 2002.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Copyright ©2002, Ran Chermesh

The Uses of Networking for Promoting Sociological Research by Ran Chermesh
First Monday, volume 7, number 12 (December 2002),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_12/chermesh/index.html





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