Posted in Uncategorized

Exploring Facebook

Facebook is a phenomenom.

– It has more than 750 million active users
– The average user has 130 friends
– People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook (Facebook stats Aug. 2011)

What´s more, Facebook could be worth $100bn by spring next year according to some reports, a fanciful figure perhaps, but considering that Goldman Sachs and Digital Sky Technologies have invested $450m and $500m respectively the figure begins to sound more plausible.

Thus given the magnitude of the institution, how can sociology attempt to explore this incredibly globalised form of communication?

Well, one of the first sources of ´sociology´ comes from Facebook´s resident ´psychologist/sociologist´, Cameron Marlow. He found that:

  1. Many people have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but only actively communicate with a few. “Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever,” says Marlow.
    2. The average male Facebook user with 120 friends leaves comments on 7 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 4 friends
    3. The average female Facebook user with 120 friends leaves comments on 10 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 6 friends.
    4. The average male Facebook user with 500 friends leaves comments on 17 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 10 friends.
    5. The average female Facebook user with 500 friends leaves comments on 26 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 16 friends.

The ´Dunbar´ number states that the “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”, is generally accepted to be about 150. So, considering the average user has 130 friends, the Dunbar number appears apt. Yet, on closer inspection, we don´t really have any kind of intimate relationship with anywhere near that number. The vast majority of Facebook users are perhaps not exclusively interacting with any more people than in pre-SNS days. Yet, it is very clear that sites such as Facebook have changed the way we interact – not only are our ‘friends’ privy to our photos, updates, bio info. and statuses, they are also witness to what others say about all these things. Thus, Facebook has opened up our private lives to others on an unprecedented level, so much so that many users have left their profiles open to complete strangers. This holds ramifications for individuals – many have suffered cyber bullying, stalking, sexual abuse, fraud and a number of other negative factors. The concept of ‘privacy’ is being re-addressed, indeed, Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that ‘privacy is no longer the norm”, he argues that users of Facebook are knowingly offering personal information to a public forum. Yet, many attack these claims, arguing that many users are ignorant of the way Facebook uses this information and perhaps more damningly, these critics argue that Facebook intentionally does not publicise the need for privacy settings.

In many ways Erving Goffman’s ‘Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life’ (1951) lends itself extremely well to this exploration. Goffman utilsed the metaphor of the stage to help articulate how humans interact and display their ‘self’ to others. In the ancient Greek, “persona-lity” has a dramatic meaning – the ”mask” we wear it wherever we go as we present ourselves to ourselves and to others. It reflects our self-concept – what we seek to maintain about ourselves –  For Goffman, humans are characterised by the use of a number of varying masks, these masks help individuals only represent the details they wish to disclose about themselves; therefore, our masks vary according to every social situation. Thus, in many ways, sites such as Facebook have become a key part of ‘the front’, it is now part of the stage and our friends are privy to the performance. Facebook helps project the social ‘me’ – parts of the self we wish to disclose; the comments, photos, statuses etc are all part of the ‘social setting’. Yet, this idealised front must conform to conventions, mores and rules required by the audience because the performance needs to be believed. Each of us are playing out social roles – in this case, I play out the roles of a man, teacher, son, husband, Tottenham fan etc. Therefore, each mask we wear suits the role we are playing. At school a certain level of professionalism is expected when I interact with teachers, students and parents, therefore my mask is adjusted accordingly. However, when I am watching a football match in the pub, my mask changes, I am able to present a different persona. But, SNS’s have changed this often neat distinctions between the different stages, it has merged many together. For example, my friends include old school friends, colleagues, family members, university friends etc., so it is harder to present a mask which applies to each of these roles. Whilst this new public arena could be considered ‘front stage’ – a place where people very carefully cultivate their ‘me’, there are dangers too. The audience is able to interact with the projected self through tagging, photo comments and wall comments. Thus, although Facebook allows people to create an ideal representation of their ‘self’, there is great potential for this version of the ‘self’ to be besmirched – therefore, the self can be discredited in front of the audience if the user does not convey a wholly realistic presentation. I think that many users fail to understand this and this is why they are often subject to embarrassment or even humiliation. Too often, users get confused about the role they are playing on Facebook and give away too much of their ‘self’ to people who are not necessarily the correct audience.

Nevertheless, Goffman’s analytical framework helps us to understand the changing presentations of the self, we no longer live in a world of restricted social interactions, it is instead heavily globalised and very much stage managed. We are now projecting the ‘me’ to not only intimate friends but also to relative strangers. Moreover, I think that the success of Facebook owes very much to many peoples’ desire to make create a brand for themselves; Facebook allows them to leave a kind of legacy. We live in a celebrity driven world and many of us would like to make some kind of impact on the world at large. Much like family photos, it allows users to express an idealised version of their lives to the world at large – it is rare to see users to post photos of them having a really bad time!

Moreover, Facebook provides a sense of belonging, it is a community which provides a form of ‘social solidarity’ and sometimes ‘value consensus’; friends can share thoughts on any issue, they can post tributes to their heroes and the recently deceased, they can share in the ups and downs of lives. Without doubt, one of the fundamental draws of FB is the fantastic potential for voyeurism, it allows us to explore the lives of people from a far without ever having to communicate with them face to face – why else would we be ‘friends’ with someone from primary school who we have not met for years and would be likely to pass them by without recognising them?


Posted in A2 Sociology: Crime and Deviance, AS Sociology: Education

Inequality breeds contempt?

Melissa Benn new book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain´s Education is the latest in a long line of academic research which highlights the incredible gulf between Britain’s social classes. She writes:

“21st-century Britain remains a staggeringly unequal society in terms of education provision. Researching my latest book, School Wars: the Battle for Britain’s Education, I visited the country’s richest and poorest schools. Schools such as Wellington College, set in 400 acres of lush Berkshire countryside. With annual fees approaching £30,000, a year at Wellington costs more than the salary (around £25,000) of the average UK citizen”

It is clear that Benn writes from a liberal perspective and appears to very much support the comprehensive ideal, yet despite this apparent bias, a lot of her arguments are compelling. For example, she (like many others) attacks the governments adherence to the academies programme. Firstly, she argues that “academy results cannot always be trusted, with evidence in recent years of “gaming” – vocational qualifications being used used to artificially boost school league tables.” Furthermore, she quotes Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kid’s Company, who wrote of the shiny academies which, quietly rid themselves of the most disturbed kids. Lastly, she criticises the new policy as it is cutting funding to the more traditional comprehensive school. According to former headteacher and Liberal Democrat councillor Peter Downes, a fierce critic of the coalition’s education policy, “This is directing resources to the most privileged. In this way, life gets harder for schools at the bottom of the heap.”

Relating to the recent riots, Benn clearly finds the media´s knee jerk reactions simplistic and counter productive, she asks for ” less panic, and hyperbolic talk of punishment.” Rather, we should fight for a “fairer school system, the creation of strong, mixed schools in every community.”  

Bridge Academy by BDP Architects, United KingdomBenn´s book reminds me of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett´s research, ´The Spirit Level´ (2009) which claims that the greater inequality a society has, the greater the social problems. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK sits at the top of many of their inequality charts and accordingly our high levels of social problems reflect this inequality. Of course it is tempting to create a causal link between unequal education and the social unrest of the past week. Perhaps, if we enjoyed a greater amount of educational equality, young people would not feel quite so resentful and pessimistic about their future.

Yet, like all research, The Spirit Level (and I am sure, Benn’s book) is subject to fierce criticism…thus the debate goes on…

Posted in A2 Sociology: Crime and Deviance


“It’s time we heard a little bit less about the economic and sociological justifications for what is in my view nothing less than wanton criminality”. (Boris Johnson, public speech London, Aug 9, 2011)

“We are not social scientists. We have to deal with urgent situations” (Paul McKeever, Police Federation Chairman, SkyNews Aug 11,

OK! So we should not try and study the causes of social unrest Boris? The preceeding letter from the BSA I think responds very aptly to such crass statements.

Posted in A2 Sociology: Crime and Deviance, A2 Sociology: Religion, AS Sociology: Education



Letter to The Guardian (Thursday 11 August 2011)

One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.

Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds (Was this the mayor’s Katrina moment?, 10 August).

Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.

Professor John Brewer President, BSA

Howard Wollman Vice-chair, BSA

Posted in A2 Sociology: Crime and Deviance


It always seems to be that when there is social unrest in the UK, people are quick to blame ´racial´factors, unsurprisingly the usual suspects of The Daily Mail and Telegraph offered a number of articles with racial overtones;

‘The chavs have become black – the whites have become black’: Anger as historian Starkey blames ‘fashionable gangster culture’ for riots

Racial tensions reach boiling point in Birmingham as vigilantes arm themselves with baseball bats after deaths of three young Muslims

These riots were about race, why ignore the fact?


More personally, I found there to be covert and overt racial references on my Facebook feed (not from friends I hasten to add) – this was by far the most shocking;

Gareth: “Why don’t we just get some American police over as I’m sure they will do what they do best and just shot anyone that doesn’t stop.. I don’t have a problem with that and I’m sure it will all stop very soon after that”

Robert; ” Ha Ha…’Trigger Trigger Shoot that N1ggar'”

Just like the riots in the 1980s, ‘race’ is clearly seen by some sections of society as a key reason for these examples of social unrest, yet how true is this?

Indeed, race had some part to play in the initial protests as Mark Duggan was a black British man who was shot by police, hence, it seems fair to say that many of the community would have felt that Duggan was a victim of racial typecasting especially given the lack of evidence that he shot at the police. Yet, just because there is a racial element, this does not make this a “race riot” – this expression connotes the idea of one ethnic minority rioting against the police or another race – yet ´this does not seem to be the case. Although, likely to have a liberal bias, The Guardian´s Paul Lewis stated,

“The make-up of the rioters was racially mixed. Most were men or boys, some apparently as young as 10.

But families and other local residents representative of the area – black, Asian and white, including some from Tottenham’s Hasidic Jewish community – also gathered to watch and jeer at police.”

What´s more, it is clear from the myriad of footage of the riots elsewhere in England showed a multicultural set of deviants – so much so, that it really makes it hard for the right wing to frame these riots as race riots – take a trawl through Google images and this proves the case…indeed, most of the Enfield and Eltham rioters were white for example…so although, there it is clear that ethnic minorities have been involved in both attacking and protecting communities, it is not prevailing cause as Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, which researches issues of race and equality claims:

“…Race is clearly playing a part in the backdrop to these riots, and where relationships are already bad I suspect it has made it worse. But I fear that people will rush to judgment, to the suggestion that this is all to do with black youths, for instance. From one side we hear that it’s about feral youth, and from the others its all about inequality. Until we hear the voices of the people involved – and at the moment we are not – it’s very difficult to say.”

Yet, it is clear that the right wing are hoping to exploit the race card, according to the Guardian; “the BNP says it will hold its “biggest ever day of action” this weekend and has published a leaflet titled: Looter beware: British defenders protect this area. The EDL claims its supporters are organising across the country and will provide “a strong physical presence, and discourage troublemakers from gathering in our town and city centres”.

I will continue to look out for any good debate on the issue…

Posted in A2 Sociology: Crime and Deviance, AS Sociology: Education


It has been a fascinating last week for Sociologists, the UK ´riots´ have raised so many issues and new media has undoubtably added a new slant to the social unrest.

Social unrest is of course nothing new and to some extent the unrest that started in Tottenham holds many parallels with the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham that took place in 1985 and resulted in the killing of a police officer.

Perhaps the over riding similarity is the manner in which both the and 1985 and 2011 disturbances and are said to be triggered by perceived wrongdoing by the police against members of an ethnic minority:

1985 – Brixton – a black woman was shot during a police search and in Tottenham – Cynthia Jarrett, an Afro-Caribbean woman died of a stroke during a police search of her home

2011 – Tottenham – Mark Duggan, an black British man was shot dead by police despite no evidence to suggest he was shooting back

Yet, whilst the catalysts are similar, the 2011 riots in Tottenham have led to an unprecedented wave of criminal behaviour across a number of British cities such as  Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester (not to mention many parts of London). Although all of these cities have suffered disturbances before  (1980 St Pauls Bristol, 1981 Toxteth, Liverpool, 2005 Birmingham…) , which is unlikely to be a coincidence, it is very unusual that rioting spread across such a diverse geographical area. Often such disturbances are restricted to a limited area – for example, Bradford and Oldham in 2001.

Therefore, the subsequent unrest has raised so many issues for Sociologists to explore:

1. Why have the riots spread across a wide geographical area?

2. What are the causes of the riots?

3. What role has new media had in the escalation of the riots?

4. How have news institutions reported the events and what impact have these reports had?

– how sensationalised has the coverage been?

– what repesentations have been constructed and how?

5. How might the state react to this unrest?