Monday, January 11, 2010

Symbolic violence on Facebook?

This is the second article in a three part series, which aims to tease out emerging issues as a result of the increased scale, frequency and intensity of interaction on social networking sites. Whereas the first article entitled, ‘who is monitoring who in a world of online social networking?’ addressed some possible implications at the extreme arising from the emergence of individuals having explicit data on activity in their social network, this article addresses one particular avenue for linking micro (individual), meso (group or class) and macro (society) consequences. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theorising on cultural and social capital, and specifically his theory of ‘symbolic violence’, provides the framework for this article.

Following on from the first article presenting figures which demonstrate the speed and increasing pervasiveness of social networking sites on the lives of many, one interesting line of enquiry concerns how ‘desirable’ cultural and social norms propagate as a result of sites such as facebook. Pierre Bourdieu developed his theory of 'symbolic violence' alongside his theory and concepts of cultural and social capital to capture what he saw as the process by which dominant values (or those in position of power within a societal hierarchy) are impressed upon others as desirable and normative, often unbeknownst to the individuals in question. Whereas cultural capital refers to the acquisition and inheritance of specific symbolic language, knowledge, practices and even possessions, social capital refers to the acquisition and inheritance of social connections. According to Bourdieu ‘symbolic violence’ arises through a process of 'miseducation'. Miseducated individuals are left with attaining/attained thought, perception, values and subsequent actions which are seen as desirable and right to hold in society. A simple but pervasive example would be members of society trying to emulate and copy the lifestyles of wealthy and famous members of society.

The crux of the problem with 'symbolic violence' lies in the imposition and reproduction of power differentials within society which ultimately favours the already dominant and powerful. 'Miseducation' serves to legitimate the powerful and dominant groups through 'miseducating' that they 'rightly' hold the desirable and normative social and cultural values and practices. His theory leads us to the question of whether social networking sites like facebook facilitate, enhance or perhaps curb 'symbolic violence’. Does facebook merely represent what is happening offline or does it play a role in changing the nature of social relations?

One possible answer is that it may well augment and enhance ‘symbolic violence’. For if individuals possess connections in their social network with 'less desirable' cultural and social standing, the actions of the dominant online may enforce and enhance their position, by continually miseducating the dominated of their desirable and normative lifestyle and social standing. This can be achieved through the posting of educational qualifications and merits, through the choice and complexity of language used in status updates and conversation and through the posting of videos, photos and events of social activity. Thus, the dominant and powerful may enhance and maintain their social and cultural standing relative to those lower in the various hierarchies, by making it a continual and explicit 'miseducation' of the dominated in their social network. This may be a purposeful activity in some cases but likely a largely unconscious activity. What facebook may do is make various social and cultural hierarchies more explicit on a continual basis, leaving 'dominated' individuals more attentive to their social and cultural standing and perhaps promoting specific discontents and subsequent actions.

The potential with interaction is that individuals becomes more attentive to their cultural standing. Laumann's prestige principle states that individuals prefer connections that have higher social standing, because it grants access to potential resources of others, as well as potentially improves ones social standing by association. Thus, there is likely a tendency for individuals on facebook to have a number of connections with "higher" cultural and social capital than themselves. Interesting empirical data worth gathering would be to ascertain which profiles individual members are interested in outside of their close friends and family.
Is there a correlation between such profiles and the cultural and social capital of these alters? If this is correct, as Laumann's prestige principle would imply, then individuals on facebook have access and maybe continually confronted with people they know, whom they "believe" to have higher cultural capital. Laumann's principle suggests that social networking sites may be a rich ground for miseducation.

One of the hallmarks of social networking sites is the individual’s ability to somewhat 'control' or 'select' their identity portrayal, preferably in a positive light. We don’t necessarily conjure an identity, but reveal aspects of ourselves in a certain manner. It is worth invoking Ervin Goffman Dramaturgy here, and his concept of 'front stage'. 'Front-stage' as opposed to 'back-stage' refers to the public presentation of identity according to self-perceived rightness and how one seeks to anchor identity in a certain light. With regard to 'symbolic violence', those with lower cultural capital may wish to be more attentive to this front stage portrayal. According Nan Lin's theory of social capital, those more likely wishing to move up the social hierarchy are those in the lower to upper middle classes. Instrumental actions are more likely to occur here, in order to move up the social hierarchy. Furthermore, those higher in the social hierarchy wish to maintain and increase their power, and miseducation is one fruitful means to achieve this.

Overall, granted that unless we are looking purely through the lens of rational choice theory, symbolic violence can be useful for understanding the consequences of social networking sites not necessarily as a result of conscious human action. Some of the problems with rational choice theory include the fact that human action can be guided by worldviews; morals, ethics, personal beliefs and norms etc.; which influence human action, how individuals present the 'face' and the degree of congruency between 'front stage' and 'back stage'. Writers who implicitly invoke rational choice leanings in this regard should be questioned. For instance, Andy Oram writing for O'Reilly Radar assume such rational choice in writing that, 'every nugget we release is subjected first, consciously or unconsciously, to a key question: will we get some benefit from the social network commensurate with the value of the information we are about to give our contacts?' (O'Reilly, 2009)

Finally, granted that Social Networking Sites may afford the individual the creation and maintenance of an enlarged social network, the third and final article in this series will address the possible implications for individuals as a result.

Copyright © 2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.


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