Wikipedia:Sociology of Wikipedia via Rorty and Berger
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There are four main traditions in sociology: the post-modern tradition, the conflict tradition, the structural-functionalist tradition, and the symbolic-interactionist tradition. In a simplistic overview, post-modernists look at the world by comparing and contrasting different realities, often removing any centre. Conflict theorists look at how macro society organises its power relations via conflict. Structural-functionalists look at how macro society organises itself into a structure that creates functional interactions; it is about learning how society members work together, not against each other. Finally, symbolic-interactionists look at micro sociology; they analyse how individuals are socialised by society and how these individuals affect society.
This paper analyses the media of Wikipedia – an online free-content encyclopaedia that anyone can edit – via two sociological theorists. The Wikipedia encyclopaedia works by allowing the general public to edit and add to the encyclopaedia. Each individual can have an effect on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia is itself beyond anything an individual has contributed to it. It can be seen, therefore, that Wikipedia has distinct micro attributes common to symbolic interactionist theory. Furthermore, Wikipedia is created via the constant comparison and contrasting of the editors. Thus, Wikipedia can be seen to have attributes common to post-modern theory. Therefore, this paper will analyse Wikipedia from both symbolic-interactionist and post-modern perspectives via Peter L. Berger and Richard Rorty, respectively.
Berger looks at the social-psychological processes of people to understand the sociology of knowledge. He calls this the sociology of psychology. He shows how an individual's subjective reality is socially constructed into the individual’s consciousness. He states that this "construction" can either be about the "objective reality" or subjective correlates. For Berger, objective reality is knowledge generally accepted by society as a whole. The fact that the Earth is round is an example of an objective reality. Subjective correlates are the ways the objective world becomes “real” to the individual. The fact that I personally believe the world round is an example of a subjective correlate.
When Berger talks about social-psychology he is talking about how an individual is socialised in a society. He believes socialisation creates a psychological reality for the individual to gain “self,” have a conscious way to process her surroundings, and learn proper ways to interact with other individuals. Furthermore, A person’s psychological reality is in a continual “dialectic relationship” with society. Therefore, an individual can influence the society that has socialised her. For, society is comprised of multiple selves continually affecting and being affected by it. Dialectics is “the process, especially associated with Hegel, of arriving at the truth by stating a thesis, developing a contradictory antithesis, and combining and resolving them into a coherent synthesis.”
Berger states socialisation is the synthesis of the objective reality and subjective correlates. A successfully socialised individual is one that verifies and coincides with the “objective” reality – reality society has decided is real. Furthermore, the individual is socialised to such an extent that she can act completely spontaneously. In other words, the individual’s self, or consciousness, is unable to think outside of the objective reality she has subjectively apprehended. The individual creates identity via terms created by society and these terms become her reality, or “world”. Therefore, society is not only the definition of, but also a creator of, psychological reality.
Berger takes this dialectic concept, which he says is psychological, and extends it in order to understand the sociology of knowledge. He first states that society is the objectification of the almost infinite number of subjective realities, or “worlds,” held by each individual. Society, therefore, is the creation of an objective world above and beyond any individual’s subjective and preferential concept of the universe. Furthermore, society objectifies subjective individual experiences so other individuals can “subjectify” those experiences themselves. Berger believes the psychologically objective world is where “knowledge” is created and where that “knowledge” is reinforced because individuals have been psychologically socialised to believe the objective world is reality. The individual can use “common sense” to explain an experience instead of discerning the meaning from anew.
To give an example, say you believed your wife’s infidelity will bring on the wrath of the Gods because you have been socialised by your society to believe that when men become cuckolds the family is punished by the Gods. That year, there is an early frost and you lose half of your crops. This situation, in your mind, verifies the social knowledge that a wife’s infidelity brings on the wrath of the Gods. Via language and other social structures, you explain to your neighbours what happened. By using linguistics you have objectified your reality and your neighbours, in turn, internalise and personally “subjectify” your reality. They might accept your reality or they might come to the conclusion that their crops were frosted too but they were not cuckolded so that might not be the reason for the frost. If so, they might tell this disagreement to others. Through this dialectic process, society – as a whole with many parts – will decide if it considers the early frost was punishment from the Gods, if that reality is balderdash and it was the climate doing its non-anthropomorphic whim, or create some other psychological model (“models” will be explained later).
As the example shows, linguistics is a fundamental tool to objectify and explain a social reality to individuals. Furthermore, “language focalizes, patterns, and objectivates individual experience.”
Berger further extrapolates the importance society has for an individual, stating the effects of anomie – “the personal state of isolation and anxiety resulting from a lack of social control and regulation” – but this will not be addressed because it does not pertain to Wikipedia.
Berger believes that there is not only a dialectic relationship between individual and society, but a dialectic relationship between society and its “world” – a sociologically dialectic relationship. The world, in becoming an objective reality for society creating it, is partially autonomous from society and is itself able to influence society. To return to linguistics, linguistics, created by society, imposes its logic on society. To synthesise his psychologically dialectic relationship and his sociologically dialectic relationship he states that society theoretically creates the sociology of knowledge to create a dialectic where society can generate its psychological reality and the dialectic of “world” creation. He also states that both psychological and sociological dialectics are concerned with an objective social reality and the subjective individualisation of that reality. “In both instances, the individual internalizes them to become given contents of his own consciousness, externalizes them again as he continues to live and act in society.”
Berger talks about a third dialectic, the dialectic of the theoretical level of consciousness. This dialectic is about the relationship between psychological reality and psychological models. He believes this dialectic is created because of the human desire to explain experiences. To return to the cuckold example, humans desire to explain the experience of an early frost. The cuckold in our example uses a psychological model to explain the frost as the wrath of the Gods. However, another psychological model might explain the frost as caused by a profane climate. Therefore, “the model is part of the society’s general ‘knowledge about the world,’ raised to the level of theoretical thought.” Berger states that “psychological ‘knowledge’ is always part of a general ‘knowledge about the world’ –in this proposition lies the foundation of what, a little earlier, was called the sociology of psychology.
Psychological theoretic models must be empirically reinforced by the psychological objective reality of a society. The example that the Gods punish cuckolding is reinforced by the frost brought on by the Gods. Therefore, theoretical models can be empirically tested in relation to the objective reality of society, proving that the model is part of the same socially constructed reality as that society. The dialectics of the model created by society and the word – theoretical dialectics – is reinforced by the dialectics between society and the world – sociological dialectics. Finally, the theoretical model can act upon psychological reality, itself creating reality.
Berger maintains a concept of an objective reality, albeit a psychological reality. Rorty removes any centre, any objectivity, and focuses on how an individual can work with subjective realities by becoming ironic. He states that “human beings are [not] something more than center-less webs of beliefs and desires.” Rorty seeks knowledge that corresponds with human need rather than reality itself.
Ultimately, Rorty believes people describe their reality via a vocabulary. This vocabulary explains one’s actions, beliefs, and life. He calls this vocabulary a “final vocabulary.” Rorty then defines an “ironist” as someone who fulfills three conditions. First, an ironist is someone doubtful of her own final vocabulary because she has empirically discovered other final vocabularies from other individuals. Second, she is aware she cannot remove her doubt about her vocabulary via her vocabulary only. Finally, she knows there is no reason her reality, or final vocabulary, is any closer to reality or a metaphysical reality than other vocabularies. Indeed, there is no actual Reality, only comparison between different realities. The implications of someone becoming an ironist are that she never believes in “Platonic” terms, Platonic world views, or Platonic metaphysics and is aware that her final reality, and therefore her self, is able to change.
An ironist distrusts “common sense” because common sense is acceptance that one’s own final vocabulary can define other final vocabularies. Instead, an ironist will try to interpret her own reality via the final vocabularies of others. The ironist will then compare the results of different final vocabularies and re-describe her final vocabulary, creating the best self for herself she can. Rorty calls this comparison “literary criticism.” He talks about how literary critics are defining books by how they relate to other books, consequently creating revised opinions about the book being defined and the defining book. He even posits that “literary criticism does for ironists what the search for universal moral principles is supposed to do for metaphysicians.”
An ironist compares without ever creating an “original” to compare all else against. Furthermore, the best critic of a person is another person; the best critique of a culture is another culture, etc. Doubts can be assuaged by creating as many acquaintances as possible. Rorty also believes that societies are bound together by common realities and common vocabularies, not philosophical beliefs.
Rorty does state that an ideal society would have an ironist elite with nominalist – “the doctrine that the various objects labelled by the same term have nothing in common but their name” – and historicist plebeians. These plebeians would not try to explain and fix social doubts by semantics and ethics, but by concrete alternatives. Furthermore, Rorty desires a public rhetoric to be nominalist and historicist, but not ironist because he does not believe an individual can be initially socialised when that individual has doubts about her socialisation. Furthermore, an ironist needs a society she can compare and contrast herself against.
Wikipedia was created in 2001 and is an internet encyclopaedia that anyone can contribute to. Whenever an individual contributes to an article, their edit is clearly identified. Therefore, their postings can create respectability and social standing. Since new versions can be continually created, vandalism is easily fixed. All articles have a separate page where authors can discuss edits and differing opinions. Wikipedia is incredibly successful, with 1.3 million articles in 200 languages and more traffic than any other online encyclopaedia. Furthermore, Wikipedia is run completely by volunteers. Wikipedians say that although articles vary greatly in quality, they improve over time as contributors hone, polish and edit. Also, incorrect information can be corrected immediately.
In the Internet Age, you research a topic not by getting the final word from a single source but by using a multitude of sources. You do this because the Net makes it easy. Googling takes just seconds. But anyone who's tried googling a broad topic quickly runs into a frustrating problem: You end up with an overwhelming number of links, some of questionable relevance. This is where Wikipedia comes in. Wikipedia complements Google by providing a framework of understanding, a quick overview of the subject. Its articles often provide a list of relevant links to Web sites for further reference. If a date in a Wikipedia article is off by a few years, it is not an issue. The researcher knows that Wikipedia has no guarantee of accuracy, so she will cross-check any critical pieces of information with other sources. Wikipedia is an essential because it provides a starting point, an explorer's map to new territory rather than a faultless gazetteer.
Critics of Wikipedia say there is no minimum standard of grammar, readability and fact-checking.
Berger & Wikipedia
Berger would say that the dialectic relationship between Wikipedia and its constituents is much like the dialectics between individual and psychological reality, psychological reality and the psychological world, and the psychological world and psychological theory. He would also enjoy the centre and structure Wikipedia provides, allowing individuals to have dialectics between each other but eventually creating an objective structure. Also, individuals can still have dialectics between their subjective realities and Wikipedia, either editing the encyclopaedia or objectifying their realities. Berger would state that Wikipedia, via its dialectics, will become closer to the psychologically objective reality and world it is describing.
Berger would enjoy Wikipedia’s ability to elucidate the “framework” of a subject to individuals. He would say that the objective reality of Wikipedia is socialising the individual about a subject. Once the individual internalises, or subjectively correlates, the subject’s reality she can then have a dialectic relationship with Wikipedia about that subject, editing it if she so desires. Though Wikipedia is completely linguistic, Berger would say it still has drastic import because “language focalizes, patterns, and objectifies individual experiences.”
Furthermore, Berger would believe that reality is a psychological construction. Therefore, it does not really matter if Wikipedia adheres to “reality” in any “Platonic” metaphysical manner, only that Wikipedia adheres to the psychologically defined reality of the world. If Wikipedia says there are Martians, all that matters to Berger is that our socially constructed world believes there are Martians; whether there are Martians meta-psychologically or not is irrelevant to Berger. Also, Wikipedia is a good place for a model of psychological theory to be posited and empirically researched to see if it fits the psychological world.
Rorty & Wikipedia
Though Rorty is a post-modernist who disagrees with an actual Centre, his plebeian nominalists and historicists require a Centre. Therefore, he would enjoy Wikipedia’s centre and structure. Furthermore, the fact that problematic Wikipedia articles can be immediately changed is great for his plebeians’ requirement of concrete alternatives.
Rorty would not mind the “inaccuracy” or lack of minimum grammar standards because, to him, there is no such thing as inaccuracy or minimum standards; there are simply different final vocabularies and it is an ironist’s job to decide which she prefers. Just as an ironist compares different final vocabularies to create the best self for herself she can, Wikipedia compares differing final vocabularies to create a more “comprehensive” and “accurate” encyclopaedia.
Rorty would also like the dialog and constant comparing and contrasting between different article editors. Though he would state a true ironist would be able to accept two dissenting ideas as equally valid, Rorty would still be fine with Wikipedia creating a single article for his plebeian society.
This paper has striven to explain structural functionalist and post modern views about the politics of knowledge. It has then applied these views to a media type. The theorists chosen were Peter L. Berger and Richard Rorty. The media type chosen was Wikipedia. Wikipedia was a perfect fit for Berger because it is a media type where individuals interact to create a specific reality. Furthermore, these individuals interact via dialectics and, through subjective internalisation and externalisation, create an objective reality. Wikipedia was also a perfect fit for Rorty because it shows how multiple subjective individuals can interact to create better final vocabularies for themselves. Though Rorty’s ironists would not truly believe the objective reality created by Wikipedia, nor like the centrism of Wikipedia, Rorty’s nominalists and historicists, necessary for a liberal society utopia, would require this objectivity and centrism.
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