Please contact me if you require a copy of any of the articles listed here.
In print. “Lifestyle Enclaves in the Instagram City?” Social Media + Society (with Justus Uitermark).
Abstract: Commentators and scholars view both social media and cities as sites of fragmentation. Since both urban dwellers and social media users tend to form assortative social ties, so the reasoning goes, identity-based divisions are fortified and polarization is exacerbated in digital and urban spaces. Drawing on a dataset of 34.4 million interactions among Amsterdam Instagram users over half a year, this paper seeks to gauge the level of fragmentation that occurs at the interface of digital and urban spaces. We find some evidence for fragmentation: users form clusters based on shared tastes and leisure activities, and these clusters are embedded in distinctive lifestyle zones at the interface of social media and the city. However, we also find connections that span divisions. Similarly, places that are tagged by Instagram users generally include a heterogeneity of clusters. While there is evidence that Instagram users sort into groups, there is no evidence that these groups are isolated from one another. In fact, our findings suggest that Instagram enables ties across different groups and mitigates against particularity and idiosyncrasy. These findings have important implications for how we should understand and study social media in the context of everyday life. Scholars should not only look for evidence of division through standard network analytic techniques like community detection, but also allow for countervailing tendencies.
2018. “Trending #hijabfashion: Using Big Data to Study Religion at the Online–Urban Interface.” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 22–40 (with Justus Uitermark and Laïla Wiersma).
Abstract: This article discusses the potential and the limitations of big data analysis for the study of religion. While big data analysis is often perceived as overtly positivistic because of its quantitative and computational nature, we argue instead that it lends itself to an inductive approach. Since the data are typically not collected for the purpose of testing specific hypotheses, it can best be seen as a resource for serendipitous exploration. We therefore pose a number of substantive research questions regarding the global circulation and local mediation of sartorial styles and practices among Muslim women. We present an analysis of the #hijabfashion hashtag on Instagram, drawing on a database of 15 million posts. The analysis proceeds in two steps. First, we research the deterritorialized global networks formed by users who mark their posts with the hashtag, showing how hijabistas form relationships that cut across national, ethnic, and other boundaries. Then, we demonstrate how these global networks are underpinned and powered by localized networks, focusing on the case of Rotterdam. We show how hijabistas in this Dutch city develop their religious and fashion styles through localized agglomeration economies and counterpublics.
2017. “Reassembling the City through Instagram.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 612–624 (with Justus Uitermark).
Abstract: How do people represent the city on social media? And how do these representations feed back into people’s uses of the city? To answer these questions, we develop a relational approach that relies on a combination of qualitative methods and network analysis. Based on in-depth interviews and a dataset of over 400,000 geotagged Instagram posts from Amsterdam, we analyse how the city is reassembled on and through the platform. By selectively drawing on the city, users of the platform elevate exclusive and avant-garde establishments and events, which come to stand out as hot spots, while rendering mundane and low-status places invisible. We find that Instagram provides a space for the segmentation of users into subcultural groups that mobilise the city in varied ways. Social media practices, our findings suggest, feed on as well as perpetuate socio-spatial inequalities.
2016. “How to Study the City on Instagram.” PLOS ONE, vol. 11, no. 6, p. e0158161 (with Justus Uitermark).
Abstract: We introduce Instagram as a data source for use by scholars in urban studies and neighboring disciplines and propose ways to operationalize key concepts in the study of cities. These data can help shed light on segregation, the formation of subcultures, strategies of distinction, and status hierarchies in the city. Drawing on two datasets of geotagged Instagram posts from Amsterdam and Copenhagen collected over a twelve-week period, we present a proof of concept for how to explore and visualize sociospatial patterns and divisions in these two cities. We take advantage of both the social and the geographic aspects of the data, using network analysis to identify distinct groups of users and metrics of unevenness and diversity to identify socio-spatial divisions. We also discuss some of the limitations of these data and methods and suggest ways in which they can complement established quantitative and qualitative approaches in urban scholarship.
2015. “The Axial Age and the Problems of the Twentieth Century: Du Bois, Jaspers, and Universal History.” The American Sociologist, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 234–247.
Abstract: The axial age debate has put big questions of social and cultural change back on the agenda of sociology. This paper takes this development as an occasion to reflect on how social thought works with (and against) nineteenth-century intellectual traditions in its efforts to understand history on a macro scale. Karl Jaspers, who initially formulated the axial age thesis in The Origin and Goal of History, revised the Hegelian account of world history by broadening the scope of the narrative to encompass all civilizations participating in the events of the first millennium BCE that saw the rise of major philosophical and religious traditions. However, his account, like the earlier philosophical accounts he seeks to improve upon, privileges cognitive developments over material practices and social interactions, and as such offers little to those seeking to make sense of how cultural patterns interact with others and spread. Here another social theorist engaging with Hegel, W. E. B. Du Bois, provides a helpful contrast. His account of the development of double-consciousness in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the opening chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, helps us to understand experiences of encounter and the perduring historical effects they may have. Du Bois’ relational theory reminds us of the importance of unpacking abstractions and understanding processes in terms of social interactions.
2014. “The Inq13 POOC: A Participatory Experiment in Open, Collaborative Teaching and Learning.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, no. 5 (with Jessie Daniels, Matthew K. Gold, and the POOC Collective).
Abstract: This article offers a broad analysis of a POOC (“Participatory Open Online Course”) offered through the Graduate Center, CUNY in 2013. The large collaborative team of instructors, librarians, educational technologists, videographers, students, and project leaders reflects on the goals, aims, successes, and challenges of the experimental learning project. The graduate course, which sought to explore issues of participatory research, inequality and engaged uses of digital technology with and through the New York City neighborhood of East Harlem, set forth a unique model of connected learning that stands in contrast to the popular MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) model.
2013. “Inventing the Axial Age: The Origins and Uses of a Historical Concept.” Theory and Society, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 241–259 (with John Torpey).
Abstract: The concept of the axial age, initially proposed by the philosopher Karl Jaspers to refer to a period in the first millennium BCE that saw the rise of major religious and philosophical figures and ideas throughout Eurasia, has gained an established position in a number of fields, including historical sociology, cultural sociology, and the sociology of religion. We explore whether the notion of an “axial age” has historical and intellectual cogency, or whether the authors who use the label of a more free-floating “axiality” to connote varied “breakthroughs” in human experience may have a more compelling case. Throughout, we draw attention to ways in which uses of the axial age concept in contemporary social science vary in these and other respects. In the conclusion, we reflect on the value of the concept and its current uses and their utility in making sense of human experience.
2019. “Theorizing Social Media with Elias: Status Displays, Mutual Monitoring, and the Genesis of New Sensibilities.” SocArXiv (with Justus Uitermark).
Abstract: Making sense of interaction in digital spaces is one of the key challenges for contemporary sociology. Our paper makes a contribution to the sociological theorization of social media. It suggests that the dominant framing of social media in terms derived from communications scholarship, particularly the concept of the public sphere, proves unhelpful when trying to make sense of what people overwhelmingly use social media for in their everyday lives. The networked public sphere prism suggests that unbridled opinion exchange and political debate are what characterize social media and thus define our age. This has been part of the utopian investment in networked forms of communications, and has proven an important aspect in the context of recent protest mobilizations and movements for accountability in which social media played a highly publicized role. However, outside of such normative ideals and exceptional contexts, social media are rarely vehicles for opinion exchange or disruptive movements. Rather, from the perspective of everyday life, social media are more often aligned with order than with disruption, and with the display of status rather than reasoned debate. We propose drawing on the work of Norbert Elias to develop an alternate theorization of social media. Elias’ early work on the court society, his analysis of the civilizing process, as well as the larger “figurational” approach to the study of human society he founded, are helpful not just in making sense of the status-seeking behavior of social media users, but also the new needs, desires, sensibilities and practices that emerge at the interface of social media and the spaces of everyday life. From Elias’ work, we derive structural pressures as well as new sensibilities that emerge in social spaces ordered by an overarching system of rank. While the court-like sociality of social media tends to reinforce rather than challenge social order, this does not rule out that social media can become aligned with movements for social change. In these cases, however, activists have to actively work against pressures toward conformity, so their successes should be seen as exceptions, not as paradigmatic.
Forthcoming. Translation of Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times, second edition, edited by Philip Kasinitz (New York: NYU Press).
Translator’s Note: Two previous translations of this essay have been in wide circulation: The first was by Edward Shils, produced in the mid-1930s, and the second by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, from the late 1940s. Both opted to render Simmel’s philosophical idiom in psychologistic terms, translating Seele (soul) as “psyche” and Geist (spirit) as “mind” or “mental.” With their overtones of behaviorism, these translations clearly bear the mark of their time. I have opted to return, as much as is reasonably possible without sacrificing lucidity, to Simmel’s idiom. Social thought in the early twentieth century felt the need to “secularize” the language of spirits and souls inherited from the previous century in order to appear properly scientific, while today many social theorists recognize that this language has multiple genealogies and that we do not have to break with it fully. Thus, a more faithful translation of this essay’s title would be “The Metropolis and the Life of Spirit,” but I opted to retain the established title to avoid confusion. Simmel often uses multiple metaphors and other devices to convey his meaning, to the point where exact translation, while possible, would make the text needlessly opaque. I attempted, as much as possible, “to present a Simmel whose language has come of age in the present and for the future,” as Lawrence Scaff recently put it (Contemporary Sociology, vol. 40, no. 1, 2011). Finally, unlike both previous translations, I strove for more gender-neutral language, which is closer to Simmel’s text—and his intentions—than the heavily male language of Shils, Gerth and Mills.
2019. “Out of the Deep Past: The Axial Age and Robert Bellah’s Project of Social Criticism.” The Anthem Companion to Robert Bellah, edited by Matteo Bortolini (London: Anthem Press), pp. 81–96 (with John Torpey).
2019. “Framing a Mission Field.” Return to Sender, edited by John Corrigan and Frank Hinkelmann (Zurich: LIT), pp. 83–104.
2012. “Provincializing the European Religious Landscape.” Perspectives on Europe, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 80–83. (full text)
2012. “The Bible as Floral Pattern.” Standplaats Wereld, June 22.
2009–2012. Contributions to The Immanent Frame. A selection:
- The Fanatical Counterpublic (March 12, 2009)
- The Crucifix Controversy and the Contradictions of German Secularism (April 30, 2010)
- Google, God, and the Public (August 19, 2010)
- Thinking about Revolution, Religion, and Egypt with Talal Asad (February 23, 2011)
- What We Talk About When We Talk About the Postsecular (March 15, 2011)
- America Plus Nothing (September 23, 2011)
- Muhammad Asad and the Concept of an Islamic Politics (May 21, 2012)
- The View from Berlin: An Interview with Hubert Knoblauch, Part 1 (October 16, 2012)
- Subjects, Spirituality, and Smoking: An Interview with Hubert Knoblauch, Part 2 (October 18, 2012)
2009. “Icons of the New Evangelicalism.” Killing the Buddha, September 6.