Current Institutional Affiliation
Walter A. Eberstadt Professor of Sociology and History, Sociology, The New School

Award Information

Abe Fellowship 2010
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Chair and Professor, Sociology, The New School
Virtual Communities and Civil Society:Ethnology of Social Networking Media and Community Formation in Japan and the U.S.

The Internet has undoubtedly altered our ways of social life. What are the implications of the new level of connectedness for the future of civil society? What are the ways that the internet is used not only for the dissemination of information, but for creating new ways of belonging and increasing social and civic participation? It is from these concerns that I propose to examine current practices of online communities which reflect social, political and cultural activism. In the past, technologies were seen as eroding communities, but today information technologies have proven powerful in potentiating new expressions of community (Delanty, 2003). Based on a neo-Tocquevillian approach to civil society, the proposed study will investigate the impact of emerging technologies in internet based “social media” on the network dynamics of civic and social activism in Japan and the United States. Online communities come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, purposes, and unique relationships to real life activist groups. The focus of this study will be placed on two different kinds of virtual communities: 1) Virtual communities that provide benefits and supports for people with uncommon identities, interests or concerns (e.g., physical and mental disability, rare medical conditions, non-traditional gender identities, spiritual needs that do not fit to conventional religions), and 2) Community-based NGOs using social networking media in novel ways. It will also assess strengths, capabilities and weakness of various social media in the self-organizing activities of citizens. In short, the study intends to evaluate the potentiality of cyberspaces in creating and institutionalizing unique “third places” (Oldenburg: 1989) in society. Oldenburg argued that civil society requires public spaces for neutral ground where people can interact and gather. In contemporary Japan as well as in the U.S, the cohesive forces of family and work as first and second places are increasingly uncertain. The need for third places becomes evident. In this context, the applicant has set up a team of cyber-ethnographers in New York to study online communities in the U.S. (more precisely, English speaking cases since cyber-activism tends to break through geographical boundaries), with emphasis on small but active virtual communities. I would like to expand this research by comparatively studying Japanese cases and further types of online communities. I hope to explore future extensions of this study to include other East Asian cases, in particular, Korea and China, during the tenure of the Abe fellowship. By taking ethnographical approaches studying various forms of online communities in Japan and the United States, the project will contribute to public debates on the potentials of internet-based technologies for the development of a more inclusive society. Almost all kinds of social networking media (e.g., Facebook variations, Twitter, blogs, Wiki, and 3D social media such as Second Life) are available in both Japan and the US. Nonetheless, social, cultural and legal environments surrounding cyberspace technologies and cultures of civic associational activities are distinct. Hence this comparative study will investigate the relationship between social institutional environments and people’s self-organizing activities in cyberspaces as well.