This article was downloaded by:[HEAL-Link Consortium]On: 13 March 2008Access Details: [subscription number 772811123]Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:Making sense of the information ageFrank Webster a a Department of Sociology, City University, London, UK Online Publication Date: 01 December 2005To cite this Article: Webster, Frank (2005) 'Making sense of the information age',Information, Communication & Society, 8:4, 439 - 458To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/13691180500418212URL: This article maybe used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction,re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply or distribution in any form to anyone is expresslyforbidden.
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This article traces the development in Britain of research on information andcommunications in relation to trends in Sociology and this discipline’s relationswith Cultural Studies. It observes at the outset the seminal contribution of DanielBell’s conception of Post-Industrial Society, characterizing it as blending theorywith empirical observation while providing an account of the most consequentialfeatures of change. Sociology in the UK during the 1980s largely ignored macro-level analysis and focused on work and employment, took its starting point asopposition to the technological determinism associated with this first wave enthu- Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 siasm for the ‘microelectronics revolution’, and produced localized and texturedstudies. Manuel Castells’ conception of the Network Society, while distinctive,signalled a return to the scale and scope offered by Bell, notably in being amacro analysis that combined theory and empirical evidence. Castells’ contri-bution coincided with a second wave of technological enthusiasm associatedespecially with the Internet. Alongside this Sociology in Britain has experiencedthe rise of Cultural Studies, a field that has competed for important parts of whatmight have been considered Sociology’s terrain. Indeed, Cultural Studies has out-paced Sociology in response to recent changes in the information domain. Itsemergence expressed little concern with technological determinism, embracing‘virtuality’ and being more open to the exploration of expanding culture. None-theless, Cultural Studies remains methodologically flawed while, like so muchsociological research on ICTs and information, seemingly incapable of combiningtheory and empirical evidence that identify and explain the major contours ofchange.
Information Age; Information Society; Sociology; Cul- Information, Communication & Society Vol. 8, No. 4, December 2005, pp. 439 – 458 ISSN 1369-118X print/ISSN 1468-4462 online I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y I have been thinking and writing about information trends and informationand communications technologies (ICTs) for over 25 years. I have done soas a Sociologist, located chiefly in universities in the United Kingdom,with almost a decade as an academic visitor in a Scandinavian universityplus regular periods spent in the United States. During this quartercentury the discipline has developed in many ways, for instance coming toterms with Feminism, embracing and then spurning multiple shades ofMarxism, and warming and cooling with regard to the relative importanceof quantitative and qualitative approaches to research. Along the way, post-modernism – as both substantive development and epistemological assault –has been encountered. Of the challenges for Sociology over these years fewhave been more consequential than having to come to terms with the emer-gence of Cultural Studies (and its close cousin Media Studies). Indeed, ifbookshops are any guide, one may even suggest there has been a takeoverof much Sociology by Cultural Studies, or at least the occupancy by CulturalStudies of territory towards which one might have supposed Sociology had aprior claim. If one is suspicious of bookstore stocks as indicative of the health Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 of a discipline, then witness the explosive growth of university courses incommunications, media and Cultural Studies itself while Sociologynumbers have grown at a much slower rate. In this article I should like toreflect on approaches to, and issues concerning, information and ICTs par-ticularly in light of the sometimes troubled relations between Sociologyand Cultural Studies during this period. I shall argue that there has been ashift, amongst students of change, away from interest in the InformationSociety (a term coined by Sociology) towards concern with the characterof Cyberspace and Virtuality that reflects the emergence of CulturalStudies and its impatience with Sociology’s inability to keep pace with thedynamism of change. I shall continue to argue, however, that sociologicalresearch on ICTs and information consistently proved incapable of develop-ing work with the ambition and scope to match that offered by the leadingthinkers Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells. Cultural Studies, while it has keptpace with change and responded more imaginatively than Sociology in itsanalyses, is methodologically weak and, like much Sociology, has beenunable to match the vision and combination of empirical and theoreticalwork of analysts such as Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells.
The notion of the Information Society has wide currency within Sociologyand, indeed, far beyond the discipline’s borders. For most of my career the M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E concept, Information Society (and its earlier synonym Post-IndustrialSociety), has been a major reference point for thinking about the informationdomain and associated technological innovation. It is far and away the mostthorough and systematic attempt to delineate the new society, how it cameabout and where it is likely to take us. Necessarily, then, it is somethingwith which analysts must come to terms. This has been the case even whenscholars have been disposed to reject the term (Webster 2002).
The concept of the Information Society was conceived by Daniel Bell (born May 1919), arguably the most influential sociologist of the late twenti-eth century. Bell is an American, and critics have been quick to observe thathis model of the Information Society is US-centric (Ross 1974; Steinfels1979). This is so, though in return one might note that Bell’s work has dis-tinctively European reference points – evident in the literary style, thescope of his imagining, as well as his deep knowledge of and recourse to Euro-pean thinkers (from as far apart – and as close – as Max Weber and GeorgLukacs [cf. Bell 1981, 1991]). That Bell is a first-generation American,born in the Lower East Side of New York City to Polish immigrants Benjaminand Anna Bolotsky who were fleeing anti-Semitism and poverty, is not incon-sequential to his mode and substance of thinking.
Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 Bell originated the concept as early as the 1960s, but it was launched definitively with the publication of his book, The Coming of Post-IndustrialSociety in 1973. This seems to me to be a remarkable text and not onlybecause of the extraordinary intellectual influence it has had. It is note-worthy also because it stood apart from the then penchant in Sociologyfor what one might term high theory. By this I mean the enthusiasm in Socio-logy, during the late 1960s and 1970s, for theory that merged with (perhapsmore accurately aped) Philosophy, stuck to an intensely abstract level ofanalysis, and determinedly resisted coming to terms with empiricalmatters. The hold of Talcott Parsons’s Structural Functionalism was weak-ening by this time, but the heavyweight alternative in Sociology came in theshape of the equally reified theorizations of Althusserian Marxism, while forthe less ideologically enthusiastic, aspects of Wittgenstein – leavened byPeter Winch and conjoined with Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology and somephenomenology – had considerable appeal. Across Sociology there was awidespread contempt for mere ‘empiricism’, something dismissed as anaive and outdated ‘positivism’.
Against this, Bell’s project stood apart in that, while theoretically adept and ambitious, it insisted that theory should be developed in close accordwith evidence. This was not a call for abandonment of theory, defined asa search for abstract and codified generalization. Indeed, it held to the ambi-tion to produce what later came to be called, disparagingly, ‘grand narra-tives’ – i.e. attempts to identify the most consequential features of sociallife and to trace their trajectory. But it was an insistence that I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y generalizations should be informed by evidence rather than philosophicalspeculation (Mouzelis 1995) and it had a good deal in common withRobert Merton’s (1968) advocacy of ‘theories of the middle range’. Thisapproach to theory, one that stressed the indivisible connections oftheory and real-world observation, was unfashionable when Bell developedhis notion of Post-Industrial Society, but he was not alone. The approachwas one pursued by sociologists as diverse as Ralph Dahrendorf, Alain Tour-aine, A.H. Halsey, C. Wright Mills, and Ralph Miliband. It is, in my view,an admirable tradition, one aiming to produce generalized statements of sig-nificance regarding the character of societies while committed to ensuringthat theories are substantively grounded and subject to reconceptualizationin light of empirical evidence.
The main elements of Post-Industrial Society have been well rehearsed: Daniel Bell presented it in terms of what has been called a ‘march throughthe employment sectors’ (Kumar 1995, p. 26). That is, he argued that overtime one could see a transfer from a time when most people gained their live-lihoods in agriculture (Pre-Industrial Society), later moving into manufactur-ing (Industrial Society), and most recently transferring into serviceemployment (Post-Industrial Society). The vast majority of people in Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 advanced societies such as North America, Japan and Europe are employedin service jobs such as teaching, counselling, finance and management, some-thing which, prima facie, endorses Bell’s account of change. The emergence ofa ‘service economy’ means also that we have entered an Information Societysince the major feature of service work is information. In the past work was amatter of engaging with the elements and/or working with machinery of onesort or another, but today it is a matter of relating to other people in terms ofinformation. As Bell (1973) says, ‘what counts (now) is not raw musclepower, or energy, but information’ (p. 127). For this reason, says Bell, aPost-Industrial Society is also an Information Society.
On the matter of causation Bell is clear: the driving force of change is increased productivity, or what he terms, consciously echoing Max Weberand Henri St Simon, ‘more for less’. So long as subsistence agriculture isthe norm, then everyone must work the land to eke a bare living.
However, once a society manages to feed itself without everyone being soengaged (this process began with the Agricultural Revolution in theeighteenth century), then surplus labour can be transferred to industrialoccupations while being assured of having sufficient to eat. Through time,continuous increases in agricultural productivity have meant there are nowtiny proportions of workers employed in farming, yet we have benefitedfrom enormously increased output from the land, so much so that nowadaysalmost all people in the North have access to plentiful, varied and cheap food.
Such productivity increases mean today that we have more food than ever, yetonly 2 – 3 per cent of the workforce in the UK and USA are involved with M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E farming. Much the same process of increased productivity and transfer out ofexcess workers goes on in industry, starting from the early days of industri-alism when there was intensive labour in workshops, to the modern highlyautomated assembly line. Bell argues that the huge productivity increases inindustry resulted in surplus wealth being generated, a consequence ofwhich was the creation of ideas to spend this. These found expression incalls for services (leisure activities, smaller classrooms, extension of edu-cation, medical facilities, . . .) that create jobs for people no longer requiredby industry (though productivity from that quarter continues to increase).
The wonderful thing is that, so long as productivity keeps on growing,thereby generating additional wealth even while requiring fewer workersin farming or industry, service jobs will always be created to use thiswealth since service needs are insatiable and service occupations are especiallydifficult to automate (for instance, witness the expansion of counsellors,therapists and ‘personal trainers’ over the last decade or so). Indeed,attests Bell (and this several years before the ecological movement tookhold of imaginations) a Post-Industrial Society may become so wealthy as toturn its back on an inflexible principle of ‘more for less’, for instance refusinga new factory location in favour of environmental protection.
Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 There can be no doubt that the driver of this route towards the Infor- mation Society is technology and technique, since this is what enables theincreased productivity on which services depend. It is also an evolutionaryconception, being presented as desirable and more or less smoothly achieved,the development model being North America. Francis Fukuyama publishedhis controversial essay in 1989 and the book-length The End of History andthe Last Man (1992) shortly afterwards. The message here – capitalism has tri-umphed over communism – appears on the surface to be very different fromthat of Daniel Bell. Yet at root Fukuyama presents much the same thesis: it isproductivity that changes the world, capitalism has won out because it out-produced communism, and thus the direction of history is firmly set.
While Bell adopted the language of rationalization, Fukuyama prefers theterms of the market economy, yet in all essentials his analysis follows thesame logic and trajectory as does Bell’s.
On any measure Bell’s account of Post-Industrial Society was an impress- ive achievement. Well before there was public interest in informationaldevelopments beyond the recondite realms of Library Science, he was pre-senting a serious and sustained analysis and explanation of the InformationSociety. It scarcely matters that, professionally, The Coming of Post-IndustrialSociety was savaged, theoretically and empirically (e.g. Gershuny 1978;Kumar 1978; Gershuny & Miles 1983). Bell had set the agenda to whichcritics had to respond. Moreover, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, eventswere happening outside academe that both made Bell seem especially perspi-cacious and impelled a response from Sociology.
I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y Late in 1978, the then UK Prime Minister James Callaghan announced thatthe British people must ‘wake up’ to the microelectronics revolution.
Accompanying this was a spate of television documentaries and paperbackbooks with titles such as ‘The Chips are Down’, ‘Silicon Civilization’ and‘The Mighty Micro’. The message was that an enormously significant techno-logical breakthrough had been made (in a place gnomically evoked as ‘SiliconValley’) and it was set to sweep away all in its path. In the metaphor of thepopular futurist, Alvin Toffler (1980), this was comparable to a tidal wavethat engulfs everything before it. Technology, we were told, was set tohave impacts on society on a scale unknown since the Industrial Revolution(and there was indeed interminable talk of this being a ‘second industrial revo-lution’). The main concern – significantly so in view of more recent com-mentary – was with work and employment. Not surprisingly perhaps therewas a rush of major impact predictions, and many of these were dire. Antici-pated increases in productivity created apprehension for many. For instance,Clive Jenkins and Barrie Sherman (1979) predicted a ‘collapse of work’ beforethe 1990s (a theme refrained by Jeremy Rifkin [1995]). Even the optimists Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 here foresaw a massive reduction in jobs, only then to remain cheerful bysuggesting this might translate into a ‘leisure society’ provided that enligh-tened government increased wages, shortened working hours and increasedholiday entitlements (Gorz 1982).
When the analyses were not doleful or apocalyptic (and for obvious reasons government and industry tended to embrace the ‘microelectronicsrevolution’), there was consensus that old-style jobs would go but an assu-rance that, in place of positions in coal-mining, steel works and manufacture,services would expand to take up the slack. Margaret Thatcher (1983), thenpolitically pre-eminent in the UK, insisted that there would be ‘many, manyjobs . . . in the service industries’. Such interpretations were straightfor-wardly with Daniel Bell’s ‘march through the sectors’, even where hiswriting had not been consulted (Webster & Robins 1986).
My main point here is chiefly directed at commentary on what might be termed the societal, or macro, level. Whatever its particular takes, this ope-rated within a technological determinist framework. The underlying premisewas that technology caused social change, that microelectronics was anespecially powerful technology and thus would have prodigious consequences(one popular metaphor was to describe microelectronics as a ‘heartland’ tech-nology [Barron & Curnow 1979]), and that this technology, while itselfasocial, more or less directly impacted on society. In this frame, some ima-gined the ‘collapse of work’ while others were convinced that serviceswould come to the rescue.
M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E Where did sociological research fit into this picture? Surprisingly little in the UK ventured onto the macro terrain. The major support agency, the Econ-omic and Social Research Council (ESRC), made funds available for researchon the ‘microelectronics revolution’. It even established a programmecalled PICT (Programme in Information and Communications Technologies)that ran from 1985 for a decade. Perhaps it was the ESRC’s insistence that pro-jects should offer policy guidance that contributed to increased competition bythe nation that led to the sociological studies turning away from the bigpicture. Whatever the reason, what we got were focused and grounded pro-jects concerned with matters such as innovations in banking, medical uses oftechnologies, regulatory regimes, women’s employment in offices and theintroduction of technologies on the shop floor (Dutton 1996).
More interestingly, there was a marked reluctance amongst sociologists to accept the starting premise of the ESRC – that the microelectronics revo-lution was set to change the world, and that social science must study andadvise upon adaptation to this innovation – which found expression in resist-ance to the technological determinist presumption of the funders (and somany others). Indeed, it became orthodoxy for sociologists, paid to studytechnology’s impacts, to reject the notion that technology caused social Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 change (Dutton 1999). This sat with highly context-specific studies whichdemonstrated that technologies always incorporated values, that innovationwas a highly negotiated affair, and that the presupposition of technology’s pri-vileged role in bringing about social change was misplaced. Steve Woolgar(1996), one of the major and most insightful players in this game, notedthe irony of there being a fierce rejection of technological determinism byresearchers whose funding arrangements meant that we had ‘technologicaldeterminism in practice’ (p. 89). Nonetheless, while there were differencesin approach between the ‘social shapers’ and the ‘social constructivists’, overthis period social studies of technology boomed and, alongside, there was aconsensus as regards technology being indivisible from the social. BrunoLatour’s (1993, 1996) ‘actor-network’ theory grew in popularity until itbecame the dominant theoretical perspective amongst researchers.1 It is my view that this period saw, from the research community in Britain, the production of interesting, textured and localized studies. Thesedemonstrated, time and again, that the technological determinism whichunderscored government debate and most other discussion of the ‘microelec-tronics revolution’ was intellectually weak. Nonetheless, what seems evidentto me is that the research community at this time was unable to come up withany ‘big’ thinking as regards the character of change at the time. In sum, therewas nothing to begin to match the scale and scope of Daniel Bell’s theory ofPost-Industrial Society. Bell was certainly criticized by fine scholars (Kumar1978), but Sociology was incapable of matching him with a positive andgeneral analysis of contemporary social change.
I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y This situation continued until the 1990s. Daniel Bell’s conception of a Post-Industrial Society was routinely criticized in the professional literature(Webster 1995, ch.3) for numerous inadequacies, but none offered an alterna-tive. Meanwhile the research community most closely involved withresearching informational matters by and large concerned itself with unambi-tious studies of particular localities while subscribing to social constructi-vism. Outside academe, even beyond the border of Sociology, othersappeared content to embrace Bell’s conceptualization as the most appropriatefor the current epoch.
Things changed with the publication of the remarkable trilogy of Manuel Castells (born February 1942), The Information Age, between 1996 and 1998.
What Castells offered was worthy of succeeding and superseding Daniel Bell.
The Information Age was distinctively ambitious in its endeavour to account forthe major patterns of contemporary civilization, but it was also the work of aself-described and determinedly ‘empirical sociologist’ who wore his theo-retical clothes lightly (Castells [2000] advocates ‘disposable theory’, theorybeing an essential tool, but something to be discarded when it becomes incap- Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 able of illuminating the substantive world). Castells’ achievement hasreceived widespread praise as well as close criticism (Webster and Dimitriou2004). In my view it is right that he is perceived to be standing in the traditionof Karl Marx and Max Weber, though I welcome The Information Age too as aworthy successor to Daniel Bell’s attempt to produce ambitious theoreticalinsights – abstract generalizations – based on detailed empirical evidencethat capture the most consequential characteristics of out times. In this endea-vour to paint the big picture of the world today, capturing its primary coloursand its detail, it is noteworthy that Castells runs counter to the postmodernenthusiasm for specification, particularity and difference that expresses scep-ticism towards ‘grand narratives’.
Castells’ contribution coincided with the arrival of what I would call the second wave of technological enthusiasm – by which I mean to identify atorrent of comment that accompanied the development of information andcommunications technologies, the Internet especially, in the 1990s (Negro-ponte 1995). This evoked memories of the first wave that had been manifestedin the ‘mighty micro’ language of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I shall returnto this, but for now would emphasize ways in which Castells’ work helped usreconceive the current era. His metaphor of the ‘network society’ and hisdetailing of ‘flows of information’ have helped us think more clearly of themobilities of peoples, products and information in a globalizing world and ithas been developed in the writings notably of John Urry (2000, 2003) andScott Lash (2002). It is consonant with current interest in matters such as M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E ‘electronic communities’, ‘e-democracy’, ‘diasporas’, ‘transnationalism’,‘urban cultures’, and the emergence of ‘symbolic politics’.
Castells’ work also sits comfortably with a good deal of popular comment on information and communications technologies. His stress on the move-ment of information, such that nowadays we are reaching a situation ofreal-time action on a planetary scale, is well in line with technology-ledimages of an ‘information superhighway’, with excited talk about ‘connec-tivity’, and with all things digital (e.g. Mulgan 1997). But it is worthnoting that Castells distances himself from technological determinism inimportant ways. For a start, he refuses Bell’s conception of Post-Industrialismas a novel society built on technological excess, referring instead to ‘informa-tional capitalism’, thereby emphasizing the continuities of the present withthe past. More interestingly, though Castells has a somewhat eclecticnotion of information (and it is one that frequently does prioritize techno-logy), in his trilogy he helps shifts attention away from the hardware to thesofter side (i.e. from technologies towards human capital). This is especiallyso in his conception of ‘informational labour’ being the key category for thenew age. This is the group in the ‘information age’ that manages, initiates andshapes affairs, by being well -educated, having initiative, welcoming the fre- Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 netic pace of change which typifies the current epoch, and having, perhapsabove all, the capacity to ‘self-programme’ itself. Informational Labourjobs ‘embody knowledge and information’ (Castells 1997, ch. 6), and inevi-tably this group leads in research and development, in entrepreneurialactivity, in finance, in media, even in alternative politics: everywhere it ison top, with its ease in initiating campaigns, in developing strategy, in con-necting with other actors across the globe. It highlights ways in whichwork and living appear to be shifting towards flatter organizations, portfoliocareers and living with continuous uncertainty. More than this, InformationalLabour identifies what Lash and Urry (1994) termed ‘reflexive accumulation’,something that may be understood as information-intensive labour where theprocess and product are constantly scrutinized to be changed and revalued.
This echoes Zuboff’s (1988) concern for the feedback loops established inmodern production, the design intensity of so many products (the wholefashion industry, the branding of goods, companies and even people), the cen-trality of modern marketing, and the increased importance of cognitiveemployment (finance, business, consultancy etc.) as well as of creativework (few people seem to buy a kettle now, they want it to enhance theirdesigner kitchen).
There are few measures of this transformation, though Castells does esti- mate that some 30 per cent of positions in OECD nations are concerned withinformational labour. But it does gel with perceptions that, in the present era,imaginative and innovative people who are at ease with change are at apremium, and that those who are not – what Castells terms ‘routine I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y labour’ – are fatally disadvantaged and continuously threatened since theirassumptions of and aspirations for stability (‘I want a steady job; I trainedfor this as a young man and expect to do it for the rest of my life’) are mistakensince ‘informational labour’ can and will redesign pretty well any form ofrepetitive work, either by automation or by reorganizing affairs on a worldscale.
It bears repeating that this is not a technology-dominated approach to the Information Age. The ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies)are part and parcel of ‘informational labour’s’ day-to-day functioning, but thekey qualities are education, imagination, and capability to innovate (cf. Reich1991). In terms of research agendas, Castells’ work helps shift attention awayfrom technology impact studies towards new forms of stratification, changesin education systems (Robins & Webster 2002), new forms of politicalengagement (e.g. the organization and mobilization of campaigners such asanti-globalizers, environmentalists and human rights activists), changes in pol-itical parties and the conduct of politics (Bimber 2003), and contemporaryforms of conflict such as information war (Webster 2003).
Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 I have thus far argued that Daniel Bell’s conception of the Information Societywas singular both in its intellectual sophistication and in its ambition to paintthe big picture in sociological thinking during the 1970s. The first wave oftechnological enthusiasm did much to highlight the prescience of his work.
In the UK the research on new technology was of much less ambition thanthat presented by Bell, being focused in approach, while routinely rejectingtechnological determinism. In the 1990s Manuel Castells’ notion of a‘network society’ recalled the scale and scope of Daniel Bell. Castells’ offer-ing coincided with the second wave of technological enthusiasm that wasassociated with ICTs and the Internet. Beside, and often beneath, these deve-lopments were two connected phenomena of major importance to Sociologyitself and to analysis of how we live today. I refer to the exponential growth ofculture and to the related spread of Cultural Studies to social analysis. Cultureis of course a famously difficult term, but here I refer to the realm of the sym-bolic, the places where we discuss and decide about what and who we are, howwe feel about ourselves and others, how we display ourselves to oneanother. . .
I do not think anyone would deny that there has been an enormous expan- sion of the symbolic over recent decades, something which involves techno-logies but which reaches far beyond. Think for instance of the expansion anddigitalization of media such as satellite, television, radio, telecommunica-tions, DVD, and latterly the Internet, such that nowadays symbols are M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E transmitted, sent and received pretty well anywhere, anytime and by anyone.
One must add to this the huge growth of fashion and style (of the body, hair,face, clothing, . . .), the spread of youth cultures, of different lifestyles, ofadvertising, of varied cultures that have accompanied migration, travel andtourism as well as the globalization process, and the plethora of brandswhich means that images of the Nike swoosh, David Beckham and NaomiCampbell are recognized round the globe. Much might be written on thissubject, but here I simply announce the enormous growth of the culturalenvironment of people over the past few decades. This is evident in justabout anything from the Walkman to the dress of multi-ethnic communities,from styling of the body to architectural design, from cityscapes to the varietyof cuisine in any English town, from the composition of Premier Leaguesoccer to the decoration of living rooms. It is an inescapable feature ofliving in the twenty-first century – it is now inconceivable that one mightlive, as many once did, solely within one’s own culture, try as one might.
Contemporary media, urban experiences and everyday matters of styledemand that one immerses oneself, to a greater or lesser degree, in thediverse and hybrid cultural ambiances that surround us today. Unsurprisingly,identity – and identity politics – is of major concern in this milieu.
Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 Cultural Studies has developed in response to these trends. Faced by so much more culture, and so much more varied cultures, there has been a pres-sing need for academe to engage. However, a reasonable question is: why didSociology not develop to incorporate these matters from an early date? Iwould suggest several reasons (cf. Webster 2001). One is that Sociologyseemed rather ‘slow’ when faced by the energy, dynamism and often-ephem-eral character of cultural growth. Perhaps academic respectability, and pro-fessional institutionalization, played a part here. After all, in the 1960sSociology was to the fore in accounting for things such as ‘moral panics’and the ‘new criminology’. But the discipline had experienced hard timesin the 1980s when government disparaged and starved it of funds, leavingSociologists to hang on to whatever posts they had in universities. Therewere scarcely any new appointments in Sociology over that decade, andmany talented postgraduates had to find employment in expanding areassuch as Business Studies, Communications and – ironically – CulturalStudies that were open to new ideas and were vitalizing areas (Webster2004). Such circumstances perhaps induced conservatism in the discipline,an urge to seek respectability that found expression in doing ‘solid’ workand insisting that the discipline adopted rigorous ‘scientific’ methods.
A second reason lies in the particular concern of British Sociology with the connected areas of work/occupation and production that were key elementsof the prioritization of class analysis. Class analysis predominated in BritishSociology in the postwar years right through to the late 1980s. This extendedacross the major paradigmatic divide – Marxism versus Weberianism – so I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y much that, looking back, we may see that a good many of those disputes (‘wasclass a matter of relations of production, or was it more to do with authority,or was it expressive of market situation?’) were largely internecine. Theshared supposition was that class (and this was taken to be represented bythe male head of household) was the primary source of a whole host ofother phenomena. Hence from someone’s class (and most analysts in BritishSociology worked on the assumption that class was a matter of occupationalposition, and that it was divisible into two categories, working and middleclass) could be ‘read off’ a host of other factors – likelihood of educationalsuccess or failure, leisure habits, voting preferences, domestic relationships,choice of marriage partners and so on. Increasingly, this position came to beregarded as adopting a determinist approach to sociological subjects, even anessentialist account of the social world (‘at root class is what really matters’).
Those who did not share its worldview became increasingly unhappy withSociology. What attention was it paying, and what might it offer, say,to understanding of ‘race’ and ethnicity, gender relationships, mediaanalysis (outside of news), shopping, sport, tourism or the manifest expansionof consumption that accompanied sustained increases in living standards(Obelkevitch 1994)? Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 In brief, culture had emerged, and continued to expand at breakneck speed, as a huge feature of contemporary life, but Sociology, perhaps exces-sively committed to class analysis, appeared to ignore it and, where the dis-cipline did approach, tended to reduce culture to an expression of classcircumstances that were themselves increasingly being subverted by thedecline of manufacturing occupations, the growth of services, the partici-pation of women in the labour force, and evidence that work was decliningin significance as regards the experiences and identities of many people. Inthis light it was not altogether surprising that Ray Pahl (1989), one of themost eminent British sociologists in postwar Britain, exasperatedly declaredthat ‘class as a concept is ceasing to do any useful work for sociology’(p. 709) and that perhaps market researchers, with their categories such asDINKIES (dual income, no kids), GUPPIES (Greenpeace Yuppies), andWOOFs (well off older folk), were more insightful than the class conceptbeloved of the discipline.
Cultural Studies thrived on this expansion of culture and the inadequacies of Sociology. For instance, it was Cultural Studies that led the way in studyingsoap operas, in taking seriously fashion and clothing, in paying attention torace and the media, and in exploring hydridities. More than that, CulturalStudies characteristically paid attention not to the determinants of class tobehaviour but to the active choices of actors, to the capacities of people,young and old, of varied ethnicities, to find pleasure and creativity in surpri-sing areas. . . In short, Cultural Studies highlighted the resistance of people toimpositions of constricting circumstances.
M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E This took place alongside the spread of what I termed earlier the second waveof technological enthusiasm, something associated especially with the comingof the Internet, but also in an especially rapid development of digital media,mobile telephony, and widespread awareness of the potential of genetics totransform the most intimate areas of life. It is clear that the spread of newmedia and ICTs was integral to the explosive growth of cultures. CulturalStudies did not, like its Sociologist counterparts, seek to assess the impactsof these new technologies. Such an approach was antipathetic to CulturalStudies’ concern to appreciate the creativity of people. Neither was CulturalStudies much drawn to social constructivism: such a proposition – that tech-nologies were constitutive of human values – was so axiomatic to CulturalStudies that it scarcely seemed worthwhile labouring the point or applyingit to particular situations. When it comes to issues such as cyborgs (cyberneticorganisms), what is the point of arguing that humans and technology aremelded? What is more exciting is what and how people are constituted andhow they might reconstitute themselves in an era of spare-part surgery, cos-metic surgery, exercise regimes, body design and extensive use of drugs such Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 Cultural Studies embraced this new technological ambiance as the milieu of virtuality, one in which emphasis is on the mediation of relations, their mal-leability, their artifice, and the constant possibilities of arrangements andimminent rearrangements. Not surprisingly, Cultural Studies paid a lot ofattention to media in this situation, looking at media as a field of creativityand artifice, but foregrounding ways in which actors also could negotiateand find meaning in this rich symbolic seam. Elsewhere, we find with CulturalStudies strong resistance to notions of authenticity, indeed to any essentialistclaims. Thereby it would examine realms of culture as necessarily manufac-tured, hence inauthentic, phenomena. For instance, tourism would be paidserious attention, the tourist experience being regarded not as the searchfor the ‘true’ history or peoples of a region, but rather as an artifice thatall might appreciate, but still enjoy. Thus we have the ‘true’ Greciantaverna with its ice-cold beer, the carefully staged traditional dancing (com-plete with breaking of plates, costed and pre-purchased), the authentic Greekmusic played through the CD system and composed not a decade ago. . .
Everyone knows this is ersatz culture, but still it is enjoyable for the post-modern tourist (Urry 2002). What is characteristic of this, the ‘culturalturn’ that British social thinking has encountered in this last decade or so,is that it is acknowledged that everything is ‘virtual’ in the sense that it issocially manufactured, and this takes material forms, though no necessary con-straint follows from this. Thus the tourist experience will vary enormously I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y depending on the ‘knowingness’ of the tourist. Again, urban reinvention is amaterial process – it involves new streets, new architecture and newambiances – which are all about diverse and coexisting cultural expressions(cuisine, shops, entertainment, . . .). But still people have enormous capacityto make sense of, and indeed shape, these in imaginative and unexpected ways.
Mark Slouka (1995) rebels against the excessive voluntarism of Cultural Studies, a subject that, in often converging postmodern sensibilities withnew technology enthusiasm, represents ‘a mating of monsters’. I shareunease at Cultural Studies’ willingness to ignore the real limits imposed onso many people today (Webster 2000). What might ‘virtuality’ offer the1.3 billion people of the world existing on less than a dollar a day? Or theone in six who are illiterate? (United Nations 2002). And yet I cannot butrecognize Cultural Studies’ capacity to open up social science to new areasof research that are demonstrably important in today’s world. Without it, Ifear that Sociology would have continued to sideline interest in consumption,in media, in identity issues, in sexualities. . . To be sure, Sociology has notbeen uninfluenced by Cultural Studies itself. The journal Theory, Culture andSociety has been an important bridge linking Cultural Studies work and Soci-ology. In England the leading Cultural Studies figure, Stuart Hall (born 1933), Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 came to occupy a chair in Sociology at the Open University and served twoyears as the British Sociological Association’s President in the 1990s,though his academic background is English Literature and he possesses notraining in Sociology. Moreover, he has neither received awards from theESRC nor does he publish his work in Sociology journals. There have beena few departments of Sociology, notably Lancaster, which have welcomedthe ‘cultural turn’ and have seriously studied issues such as ‘heritage’ inven-tion and environmental design in ways decidedly influenced by CulturalStudies. These are signs that Sociology is more willing to take on the insightsof Cultural Studies, though it should be said that much suspicion and evenantipathy remains, with Cultural Studies’ undoubted weaknesses in method(inadequate research design, proneness to solipsism . . .) readily allowingwholesale rejection of the field.
I began this article with a tribute to Daniel Bell, to his conception of Post-Industrial Society, his attempt to present a ‘grand narrative’ that was sensitiveto both theory and empirical observation. In the United Kingdom Sociologywas pretty hostile to Bell, but when it came to respond to the ‘microelec-tronics revolution’ researchers could come up with nothing to match hiswork. To be sure, they rejected technological determinism tout court, andembraced social constructivism wholeheartedly (the ‘conservatives’ stuck M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E with ‘social shaping’ approaches to technology), but none could present apersuasive alternative account of ‘how we are now’. On the contrary, socio-logical research that was undertaken in this arena was, by and large, deter-minedly local, small-scale and particular.
In the 1990s Manuel Castells revitalized the mode of analysis first offered by Daniel Bell. The Information Age, with its metaphors of ‘networks’ and‘flows’, is a major achievement. Its stress on the category ‘informationallabour’ does much to shift away from technological determinism withoutabandoning the big picture. The trilogy has already had an important influenceon researchers, for instance in analysis of ‘electronic communities’ and ‘infor-mation warfare’. Of course, the critical mice have been quick to gnaw atvarious aspects of The Information Age, but few have been able to inflictserious damage.
It should be emphasized that macro analysis per se is not superior (and the term ‘macro’ itself misses the intimate connectedness with the substantivethat I would want to insist upon). One needs look no further than the ridicu-lously assured statements that came, and continue to come, from futurists torecognize that ‘big picture’ accounts are not inherently better. It is the com-bination of rich empirical analysis and its complex relations with wider con- Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 texts and conceptualizations (themselves subject to rigorous empiricalscrutiny) that does seem to me superior to studies which remain, as itwere, with their intellectual blinkers fixing them on the merely particular.
Such studies can be fascinating, and they may demonstrate the intricacy ofhuman/technology relations, but they do little more than this, confirmingonly the truistic ‘life is complicated, contingent and constantly created’.
But Sociology has been somewhat outpaced by Cultural Studies when it comes to examination of the culture and cultural changes that have beensuch a key feature of our time. Cultural Studies has seized on virtuality toaddress some of the most arresting issues of the contemporary epoch – sex-ualities, the body, pervasive media experiences, identities. . . In this it hasbeen ahead of Sociology. Though some of the discipline has welcomed the‘cultural turn’ there has also been fierce resistance from other parts (cf.
Goldthorpe 2000). Significantly, Steve Woolgar’s (2002) edited collection,Virtual Society?, evidenced sympathy and sensitivity towards Cultural Studiesconcerns, highlighting some of the discipline’s openness in recent years.
Nonetheless, it should not be entirely surprising to come across agree- ment between social constructivist analyses of technology and CulturalStudies, since both stress the malleability of relationships and the importanceof particularities. Moreover, there are commonalities of epistemology andmethod that further encourage agreement. In spite of this convergence,still I remain disappointed with the common failure of much sociologicalresearch on ICTs and Cultural Studies to address wider questions ofchange. One does understand wariness of facile generalization, still more of I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y forms of functionalism that have bedevilled a good deal of macro-analysis inthe past, especially that which limits itself to armchair theorizing and/orabstracts technology from the substantive realm while asserting that this tech-nology is the primum mobile of change. So one is not calling here for a socialanalysis capable of grandly explaining everything. Rather the plea is foraccounts that, empirically testable and conceptually sensitive, strive to iden-tify the most consequential characteristics of how we live. This is necessarilya contested affair, involving debate between arguments and evidence, but itis not a hopelessly subjective task. It also requires some notion of the inter-connectedness of phenomena, not to subsume them into a presupposed wholebut that we may struggle towards studies that make the most consequentialfeatures of the world we inhabit evident and comprehensible (cf. Preston2001; Schuler & Day 2004). No amount of localized ethnographies, howeverrewarding in themselves, can replace the need for social science to aspire andattempt to reach the levels of Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells.
Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008 A first draft of this paper was presented as a plenary address at the HungarianSociological Society Annual Conference, 27 – 28 November 2003, Budapestand an earlier version appeared in Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies31(1) 2005.
An intriguing division amongst scholars who rejected technological deter-minism at this time was discernible. On the one side were critics, oftenoutside higher education, who aligned typically with Marxian traditionsto stress ways in which technological innovation advantaged sectional inter-ests by presenting change as a merely technical (hence untouched by socialvalues) matter, while incorporating their own values into new technologiesthat disadvantaged workers especially. David Noble (1977, 1984), DavidDickson (1974, 1984), Steven Rose, and Robert Young and Les Levidow(with the journal they pioneered, Science as Culture), were key players inthis school that situated technology in the wider milieu of capitalist endea-vour. On the other side were the social constructivists, overwhelminglyemployed in universities, who, while sharing the premise that technology(and science) is inherently social, were committed to localized and texturedstudies of innovation such as laboratory relationships and the nuances of pro-ducing software. These were influenced by ethnomethodology and associ-ated forms of micro and interpretivist philosophy. Prominent amongst M A K I N G S E N S E O F T H E I N F O R M A T I O N A G E them were Steve Woolgar (1988), John Law (1991), and Wiebe Bijker(Bijker et al., 1989), while pre-eminent was Bruno Latour.
It seems that the two sides, while agreeing on the limits of orthodoxapproaches to technology, scarcely spoke to one another; they rarelycited writings from respective schools. Social constructivists focused onproducing ethnographic micro studies and became the dominant force inESRC-funded research in the UK. Perhaps they found the ‘politicos’ toocrude and reductionist for their tastes, likely to manifest what Woolgar(2002) calls ‘clumping tendencies’ (p. 6) that did a disservice to the com-plexities of change. With a few noteworthy exceptions (cf. MacKenzie1998), researchers in the UK ignored the likes of Noble and Young andfavoured social constructivism, eclipsing their followers when it came toresearch funding.
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Woolgar, S. (1996) ‘Technologies as cultural artefacts’, in Information and Com- munications Technologies: Visions and Realities, ed. W. Dutton, OxfordUniversity Press, Oxford, pp. 87 – 102 I N F O R M A T I O N , C O M M U N I C A T I O N & S O C I E T Y Woolgar, S. (ed.) (2002) Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality, Oxford Zuboff, S. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, Frank Webster is Professor of Sociology, City University London. He was edu- cated at Durham University (BA, 1972, MA 1974) and the LSE (Ph.D., 1978). He was Professor of Sociology at Oxford Brookes University from 1990 to 1998, and at the University of Birmingham from 1999 to 2002. He has been Docent in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Tampere, Finland since 1997. He is author and editor of over 20 books. His most recent is Journalists under Fire: Information War and Journalistic Practices (Sage, 2006, with Howard Tumber). Address: Department of Sociology, City University, Northampton Square, London, EC1V 0HB, UK. [email: [email protected]] Downloaded By: [HEAL-Link Consortium] At: 10:20 13 March 2008


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