#StillRacist: Richard Sherman, Social Media and the Backstage of “Colorblind” America

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Super Bowl Champions Seattle Seahawks.

by Corey McZeal

Thanks to the false sense of privacy social media affords, the world has the opportunity to peek into the private thoughts of individuals. Many people tweet, or post on Facebook, without realizing their announcements – whether positive or negative – have become public knowledge. While it is disheartening to know that many people still harbor racist, sexist, and other bigoted sentiments, social media helps us to see the areas where our society still needs to make progress.

The question of what constitutes “real racism” is, unfortunately, prevalent in American society. Since we no longer publicly hang blacks from trees or operate Japanese internment camps, some sincerely believe that America has become a colorblind society. While it is true that great advances have been made in that direction in recent decades, the social constraints associated with race still exist in our culture. Events in pop culture can sometimes bring these issues to the forefront, allowing us to analyze how racialized stereotypes are still very prevalent in our society.

Three weeks ago, anyone who is a sports fan or who uses social media was bombarded with images of NFL star Richard Sherman’s loud, passionate, adrenaline-fueled postgame interview with Erin Andrews following his Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the rival San Francisco 49ers (for the “interview,” see the video above). After declaring himself the best cornerback in the NFL, Sherman called out opponent Michael Crabtree, with whom he’d had an ongoing dispute.

Michael Crabtree and Richard Sherman’s “ongoing dispute.”

Following the interview, social media exploded with anti-Sherman reactions. While Sherman’s words were indeed boisterous, the social media reaction was heavily skewed toward negative representations of Sherman with the main themes typically including references such as “nigger,” “thug,” or “classless.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 7.08.23 PM


Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 7.08.42 PM


Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 7.09.02 PM

For more racist tweets see this link.

For a reaction to the racist tweets see this link.

Racial slurs are inherently dehumanizing and strengthen socially constructed power hierarchies, and many people quickly jumped to stinging racial epithets of Sherman because they could not distinguish his comments from his status as a black man. The negative representations had nothing to do with his postgame comments, and said nothing about his intellect or personality. Their comments demonstrated that even in “colorblind” America, Richard Sherman’s actions are seen not in the context of an individual, but of an entire race. In other words, his “negative” actions became generalizable to the race as a whole.

See link for Richard Sherman’s piece at the MMQB.

After the game, Sherman was remorseful and admitted that the tone of his interview was immature. But, if he wasn’t aware of it before, he is now surely cognizant of the fact that his actions are intimately tied to race. If Peyton Manning had gone on a strongly worded tirade after his victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, he may have faced criticism from fans and the media, he may have been called “classless” as Richard Sherman was, but his actions would be understood as the feelings of an individual, while Sherman was cast under the umbrella of “nigger.” For some, Sherman spoke not for himself but for everyone who shares his skin color, which is something Peyton Manning doesn’t have to consider.

This saga showed us that at least a fraction of America is not able to accept that Sherman’s actions can be understood in a framework other than his blackness. Racism is still present in different forms than it existed in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It hasn’t been eliminated, and I personally don’t think it’s anywhere close to being eradicated. But, when all of us can look at another “Richard Sherman situation” and see it not only in the context of a “black athlete,” we may be getting close.

When Women Succeed, America Succeeds #OurLunchWithTheFLOTUS

DCCC event at Fairmont
Pictured from left to right: Jane Ebot, The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and Letisha Brown

by Letisha Brown and Jane Ebot

On January 27th I received a phone call that set the stage for the rest of my year. It took four calls from the random District of Columbia phone number before I answered and learned that my name had been pulled for a chance to attend a lunch and have my photo taken with the FLOTUS herself, Michelle Obama. The lunch as a part of the DCCC Women’s Luncheon to be held in San Francisco January 31st. Not only would they pay for the hotel and a flight for me, but a guest as well! Immediately I thought about one of my mentors—whose office I had been in not twenty minutes before, the person who suggested I answer the call—Jane Ebot.

Still not quite believing it myself, I left my collaboratorium in search of Jane. Heart pounding, still in disbelief, I walked into Jane’s office and asked if she had plans for the weekend. She replied that she’d be working on her dissertation, to which my excitement increased, “How would you like to go to San Francisco this weekend and meet Michelle Obama?” Excitement and disbelief engulfed her as well, and after giving her a moment I called back the contact in DC so that we could begin the vetting process for a trip scheduled to take place only days later.

Fast forward to Thursday January 30th, in the airport awaiting our flight to San Francisco, for the three days and two nights stay, it finally began to sink in that next morning we’d have the opportunity to meet the First Lady of the United States, take a picture with her and hear her speak. The event itself took place in one of the ballrooms of the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, where Jane and I had the luxury of staying. We heard speeches from Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee on the importance of women in Congress over light refreshments before being escorted to a private area to have our picture taken with the FLOTUS. In line with Jane and me stood another sociology graduate student, a campaign worker, other U.S. Representatives and a host of other characters all waiting patiently for their thirty seconds with the woman of the hour.

Finally our time came, and we were escorted over to Michelle herself, who smiled and exuded a warmth and confidence that was staggering. Jane and I both had time to speak with her briefly, get a hug and two photos before our time was up. I told her about my research interest in eating behavior and body weight (to which she responded enthusiastically), and she and Jane bonded about being birthday twins (Capricorn power!). Then, she hugged us goodbye and we were ushered back to our seats where our lunch of quinoa, vegetables and chicken sat waiting for us to enjoy while the First Lady took the stage. Her speech was powerful, and hammered home the point of the entire DCCC luncheon event—when women succeed, America succeeds!

Jane and I spent the rest of the afternoon on cloud nine as we discussed the luncheon and enjoyed the gorgeous San Francisco afternoon. We rode a trolley to the Wharf, photographed Sea Lions and ate a leisurely lunch then took pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and watched as people swam in the frigid waters. The next day, our last in San Francisco, we enjoyed a nice brunch and prepared for the return flight from our whirlwind adventure!

2014 is shaping up to be a great year!

Dr. Ben Carrington’s essay in gratitude to Stuart Hall

stuart hall young

On February 10, 2014, Stuart Hall passed away at the age of 82. In honor of Stuart Hall, Dr. Ben Carrington wrote an essay for the blog Africa is A Country. The essay is entitled, “In gratitude to Stuart Hall, a socialist intellectual who taught us to confront the political with a smile.”

Below is an excerpt of Dr. Carrington’s essay:

Stuart Hall was the most important public intellectual of the past 50 years. In an age where having a TV show allegedly makes someone a public intellectual and where the status of the university you work at counts for more than what you have to say, Hall’s work seems even more urgent and his passing, somehow, even sadder. 

But for Hall I wouldn’t have become an academic. There was no space for someone like me before Hall. Discovering the field of Cultural Studies as an undergraduate, I found validation and recognition. Suddenly, my background and way of life as a working-class black kid mattered and was important beyond the confines of south London. It’s taken for granted now that culture matters, that popular culture is a site of politics, that politics saturates everyday life, and that these things can and should be studied in a serious manner. But despite their claims, it was not Sociology, or History, or Economics, or even Anthropology that created this space. It was Cultural Studies. Most intellectuals are known for contributing to our knowledge on a particular topic or specific theme. Hall was different. He created an entire new academic discipline, and then mentored just about every significant scholar that came through Cultural Studies in the 1970s and 80s.

To read the essay in its entirety, follow this link.

For more be sure to read – Remembering Stuart Hall: Socialist and Sociologist by Dr. Ben Carrington on the blog Racism Review.

Food for Thought

Food conference posterby Tom Rosen

On Saturday, February 8th The University of Texas’ Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies hosted a Symposium entitled “Food for Thought: Culture and Cusine in Russia and Eastern Europe, 1800-present.” And, like a dessert of chocolate cake with chocolate icing, served alongside a scoop of chocolate ice cream and a mocha latte, the subject matter was hyper-specific and singularly oriented, but rich and filling in its handling of food and cultural development.

Read full post

The Social Construction of Laughter

Stand-Up Comedy

by Jamie Carroll

Comedians need to be sociological about their stand-up sets to have a successful performance.  They have to perceive how the crowd will react to their jokes and how the crowd will perceive them.  After performing ethnographic research at a New York City comedy club, I developed the following tips for comedians.  These tips are based on my observations of audience reactions and informal conversations with comedians and staff members at the comedy club.  They depict sociological tools comedians can use to support the social construction of laughter during a stand-up routine.

Tip #1: Begin with a self-deprecating joke about your personal appearance.


Most comedians begin their act with self-deprecating humor that deals with the comedian’s heritage or appearance.  One comedian, who is pale and lanky with glasses, always starts his set with, “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Can this guy fix my computer?’ ”  Another big, Italian comedian starts with, “Hey tourists, this is what New Yorkers look like.”  One bald comedian tells a joke about looking creepy when he takes his daughter to the playground, then points to any bald guy in the audience and says, “See you next Monday at the meeting.”

This self-deprecating humor sets the tone for the show.  First, it connects with the audience’s awkwardness.  Instead of ignoring the fact that they look like they belong on the Sopranos or they look like a computer geek, they put it out there themselves.  They let the audience know it’s okay to laugh at them.  Since many stand-up acts are about the comedian’s personal life, starting out by making fun of themselves shows the audience that  yes, you can laugh at me and with me.  Also, the comedian expresses to the audience that he (the majority of comedians I observed during my research were men) thinks like them.  He understands how he looks to the crowd and wants them to know he is similar to them. “A performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case,” according to Goffman (1959: 48).  By making any physical differences explicitly clear, a comedian shows the audience that they observe the world in a similar way.

Tip #2: Know your audience.

Knowing your Crowd

At some point during a comedy show, the audience is required to respond to a comedian’s crowd work (speaking directly with the audience).  The MC, or person who opens the show and introduces the comedians, warms up the crowd by asking questions, such as “Where are you from?” or “Who’s married?”  He is a kind of sociologist, trying to decipher the age of the crowd and what kinds of jokes they might like.  Although most comedians do not tailor their sets to specific audiences, they will change the order and emphasis of jokes if they are getting very little response. They can quickly change their minds about jokes by pulling in cues from the audience.  By asking questions, comedians get a feeling for the crowd and whom they are performing for.

Tip #3: Define the fourth wall.

This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.
This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.

In theater, “breaking the fourth wall” is when an actor speaks directly to the audience.  The actor is usually on a raised stage, peering down at the audience sitting in rows a few yards away from the stage.  In a comedy club, the comedian is alone on a tiny platform, standing in the center of tables less than a foot away.  While theater audiences are not supposed to respond directly, the comedy club audience is an integral character within a standup routine.  As one comedian put it during a slow, late Saturday show, “I think I’m feeding off your energy, which sucks.  The other crowds tonight have been awesome, so you’re going to have to laugh a lot harder if you want me to tell jokes.”  Comedians need audience members to play their role in a comedy club: a subordinate actor who is essential to the outcome of the show.

Goffman speaks of the subordinate role comedy club audience members must take: “Subordinate involvements are sustained and muted, modulated and intermittent in fashion, expressing in their style a continuous regard and deference for the dominating activity at hand”(1959: 44).  Audience members need to give themselves up to the performance and defer to the comedian as the dominant actor, responding when the comedian offers cues and remaining quiet at other times.  By using crowd work, comedians can define the fourth wall of the comedy club and control the audience responses.

An example of how a comedian uses crowd work is when they ask the crowd where they are from or what they do, and quickly turn their response into a joke.  The audience’s job is to respond when asked, but be quiet when the comedian moves on.  For example, one comedian asked audience members if they are from out of town and where they are from.  Then she makes a joke about how tourists always walk too slowly in New York.  Although she asked an audience member to participate earlier, she does not want a response after her joke, other than laughter.  By starting an act with these kinds of jokes, comedians train the audience to respond to cues and uphold the norms of stand-up routine.

Tip #4: The comedy style determines the style of laughter.


Comedians develop different styles of stand-up that affect the amount and timing of laughter.  According to Goffman, “The performer can rely upon his audience to accept minor cues as a sign of something important about his performance” (1959: 51).  Some comedians have well-defined “punchlines” to end each joke, and generally pause for a sip of their drink, to glance at their notes, or wait for the audience to stop laughing or clapping.  For comics, these cues tell the audience that it is a socially acceptable time to laugh.  This is when you are supposed to respond.  The laughter is thus unified in these acts.  While “punchline” comedians are not guaranteed to have a positive response during these pauses, the laughter they do receive is clumped together, making it seem loud.

Another style of stand-up comedy does not have these triggers imbedded within the sets, so the audience response is more spread out.  This kind of comedian is extremely high energy and says a splatter of jokes at once, speaking very quickly.  (Think Robin Williams.)  The comic will pause for a sip of a drink or to look at notes, but these pauses are not at the end of defined jokes.  One such comedian relies on very selective audience participation.  He starts a conversation with someone, makes fun of that person, refers to a past joke, and makes a new joke in almost one breath.  Throughout the entire exchange, members of the audience laugh and nod along, looking at each other to say, “this dude is crazy!”  The reactions are positive, but there is no specific cue for everyone to laugh at once, so the laughter seems lighter because it is more spread out.

The last style of comedy is story telling.  These comedians tell long stories with small sarcastic jokes in between and a punchline at the very end, using a mix of high energy and punchline styles.  Most of the comedians I observed followed this style.  The laughter was scattered during the story and ended with the punchline.

Throughout my research, I could not ascertain whether one style of comedy was better than another, only that the style of laughter during the show changes according to the placement (or lack of placement) of punchlines.

Following these four steps will ensure that a comedian has trained the audience into the proper behavior in a comedy club.  The content of jokes, people in the crowd, and organization of the club also influence audience reactions, but these four steps are under the control of the comedian and can easily be adapted into any routine.

Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam?

All-American Defensive Lineman and 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year
All-American Defensive Lineman and 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam.

by Anima Adjepong

Missouri senior Michael Sam, who was named 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, told ESPN and the New York Times on Sunday he is gay. Following this announcement the defensive lineman’s NFL draft stock fell from 90 to 160; a decline that means the possibility of being drafted in the first four rounds less likely now. Some have argued that the decline in stock has nothing to do with Sam’s sexuality, but with the way he called attention to it. But the question remains, is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? I agree with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates that the NFL will never be ready for a gay player, but in TNC’s words, “ready or not, here he comes.”

Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? In anonymous interviews with SI.com, eight NFL executives and coaches answered in the negative. Football is still “a man’s-man game” and, according to them, introducing a gay player would make the locker and meeting rooms “chemically imbalanced.” In their candid interviews, these men argued for a status quo that is complicit with homophobia in the locker room; a status quo that ensures that to be a “a man’s-man” is to be normatively heterosexual; argued for their right to play “smear the queer” in the locker room.

The question of the NFL’s preparedness for Sam speaks to the way in which sports, particularly American football, is a heteromasculine space. If all players in the locker room are presumably straight, their homosocial desires are subsumed under a discourse of “just playing” or “no homo.” Within this context, “men’s men” can be free to love each other while at the same time denigrating men who love other men. The presence of an “openly gay” man disrupts this homosocial discourse by revealing its need to exclude other sexual possibilities in order to fashion itself as original and natural (for more on this see Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble).

Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? It remains to be seen how Sam’s announcement will affect his NFL career. However, his decision to come out is meaningful. In his interview with the Times, he commented, “I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.” But this 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman is gay. He changes how football fans and players can imagine what it means to be gay. He opens up the possibility for rethinking what it means to be a “man’s-man.” Chris Kluwe is not gay. But he has been vocal about his support for same-sex marriage and claims that this outspokenness resulted in his release from the Minnesota Vikings. He is currently a free agent and it seems the consequences of deviating from a heterosexual norm in football are still dire. And by the way, Jason Collins still remains unemployed.

Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? The sports world has not shrugged at Sam’s announcement the way that they may have about Brittney Griner’s. And this reaction is telling about how women and men’s sport are differently organized with regard to sexuality – that’s that heteromasculinity I mentioned earlier. To repeat TNC’s words, “ready or not…”

America the Beautiful


Super Bowl Ads are as American as apple pie, and this year one Coca-Cola ad in particular has received some xenophobic backlash. The ad, entitled “America the Beautiful” shows images of a diverse America, set to the anthem “America the Beautiful” being sung in a variety of languages. And when the ad aired in the second half of the Super Bowl, people took to Twitter to voice their frustrations and betrayal at Coca-Cola.

These are just a couple of tweets, more can be seen here on the tumblr account Public Shaming.

Public Shaming Tweets

After watching the commercial, and reading a handful of tweets, I wondered to myself what others thought so I asked my fellow graduate students in the department a few questions.

Do you find the xenophobic backlash the Coca-Cola commercial has received surprising?

Brandon Robinson:

Unfortunately, I do not find the xenophobic backlash to be surprising in the least. For centuries, anti-immigration sentiments have run deep in this country. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Arizona SB 1070 (among a host of so many other anti-immigration laws), we can see, at least legally, how deep this anti-immigration sentiment has been and still is today. So no, I did not find it surprising, but yet, it was still depressing to see people express such xenophobic outrage.

Maggie Tate:

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. The responses to Sebastien de la Cruz’s performance of the national anthem during the NBA finals should have prepared me.  I must have been distracted by how bad the Broncos were playing.

I was also interested in how many times the metaphor of a melting pot was used to tweet back against the anti-Coke tweets.  I would like to see a public debate that calls out the problematic nature of the melting pot, because it is precisely this metaphor that has allowed for the U.S. to be narrated as tolerant and democratic while also engaging in xenophobic, racist, or otherwise discriminatory actions.  A melting pot in a country where the definition of the “average American” is white, straight and always English-speaking produces a homogenous image of what being American can both look and sound like.  Differences are melted into a nostalgic version of America’s past.  The melting pot is about assimilation, which means that the two lines of response that “It’s Beautiful” produced actually stem from the same foundation.  In practice, the melting pot of the U.S. has mostly been based on a version of diversity where differences get erased.

The emphasis on the multiplicity of languages can also be seen as code for claims about race.  Not only did Coca Cola produce an ad with “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages, but they also visualized many non-white bodies as American.  While the backlash against the commercial is verbalized as a problem of language, I wonder if the response would be similar had the same people been animated by an all-English version of “America the Beautiful.”  I assume it would, considering that the selection of a young Mexican-American boy to sing the national anthem in English received a similar degree of backlash.

Some may say that those tweets depicted in the Public Shaming post only reflect an extreme opinion, similar to saying that the KKK only reflect the extreme. Do you find these tweets to only reflect the extreme or do you think they reflect a more general sentiment secretly/not-so-secretly held?

Brandon Robinson:

For a couple reasons, I think that those tweets in that post reflect a general sentiment. One, because of the Internet, people experience a disinhibition effect when being online. Because of the somewhat anonymity the Internet provides along with not having to deal with the same type of social responses one might experience in face-to-face interaction, social restrictions are lowered, which I then think allows people to express their feelings in more extreme ways. So, I think, these are people’s general feelings; the Internet just becomes a place where they get exacerbated.

Also, I first encountered this xenophobic response not through that post, but through one of my own Facebook friends writing the status, “America the beautiful in Spanish?” Of course, only mentioning Spanish and not all of the other languages in the commercial tacitly highlights that this is about xenophobia, and specifically against Mexican immigrants. Following the conversation that ensued from this status was also telling as well. Some people thought it was Obama playing politics as usual in pandering to the Latino vote. Of course, Obama had nothing to do with the commercial, but tying these xenophobic sentiments with a man of color – the President – definitely reveals how racism and xenophobia work intimately together.

Another person mentioned that their German ancestors learned English, so immigrants now need to learn English too. Again, we know, it often took generations for earlier European immigrants to learn English when migrating here, and immigrants now are learning English faster than previous immigrant groups. Nonetheless, facts do not matter because xenophobic discourses are often based on using fear to construct an outgroup. The point being that xenophobia runs deep, and it gets used in many ways including those in the post about twitter and elsewhere – but I don’t think any are more extreme than any others as they all perpetuate inequality and are highly problematic.

Maggie Tate:

While they certainly feel extreme, I think the tweets called out by Public Shaming reflect a part of U.S. culture that is more central than extreme.  Evidence of this can be seen in the response from conservative pundits, such as Glenn Beck and Todd Starnes, who also tweeted in with their anger towards Coca-Cola.  There seemed a sense of betrayal that the corporation would basically endorse immigration reform and gay marriage.  Beck and Starnes are spokesmen with very large and devoted audiences, so it would be surprising to me if many of their fans do not share their negative response to the “It’s Beautiful” ad.

As LGBTQnation pointed out, Coca Cola became the first advertiser to feature a gay family in a Super Bowl commercial and GLAAD has praised the ad calling it a “step forward for the advertising industry.” Do you agree with what GLAAD has said? 

Brandon Robinson:

I don’t know what a “step forward” means, but it is definitely a change. I think representation is important, especially media representation, as it is such a large part of our life, and the fact that the couple was not just white is also important, especially when homosexuality often gets conflated with whiteness. But I also have to ponder, what are the limits of representation? Like, how do we know they are a gay family? Could they just be straight friends, and the advertisement is re-defining heteronormative masculinity? How do we know that the child in the commercial is their daughter? They do not speak in the advertisement, so what cues are viewers using to read them as gay? And what does that tell us about how we construct and view homosexuality and gay families in U.S. society? Again, I don’t know if it is a “step forward,” but it is a change – a change that raises many more questions for me…

Do you think tumblr accounts such as Public Shaming actually shame these people or do you think it glorifies them?

Maggie Tate:

I guess it does both.  While it calls out twitter users that posted xenophobic or racist responses, it also creates a spectacle out of them in a way that sort of empties the whole exchange of any real debate.  Firstly, Public Shaming offers very little analysis along with the tweets, but merely points them out with a few glib comments.  Secondly, the collection of them as a form of shaming serves as a public place where others can take a moral stance.  If you agree with Public Shaming, you can demonstrate that you are the good kind of American by showing disgust towards those who tweeted against the diversity depicted in “It’s Beautiful.”  But, this process doesn’t really bring any debate forward about the issue of diversity and the way that it gets understood in U.S. culture.

The conversation remains mired in the “melting pot” vs. “America speaks English” debate, and effectively distracts attention from other important concerns such as those that might question the interests of Coca-Cola in making a commodity out of diversity.  We’re left to wonder how it is that a giant transnational corporation like Coca-Cola became the most “progressive” voice in the room.  The Public Shaming forum becomes a site for making individual claims to moral positions, but representations like this ad also have to be understood in relation to broader social dynamics. For example, what long-standing role has Coca-Cola played in the colonial expansion of American culture?  What business practices do Coca-Cola executives engage in that exploit rather than celebrate differences in the name of profit?  What does Coca-Cola have to gain by representing America in this way?  Because, gaining is what advertising is all about, after all, and airing an advertisement during the Super Bowl is a large investment.

If Talk is Cheap, are Tweets Cheaper?

This post was authored by Megha Arora, a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Math who is also an aspiring sociologist, and co-authored by Eric Borja, a third-year graduate student in the Sociology Department. Eric was Megha’s mentor for the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, and this post came out of their many discussions regarding social media as a data source.


According to the World Bank, there are nearly 2.5 billion Internet users worldwide[1], and according to Facebook’s Investor Relations site[2] there are more than a billion monthly active Facebook users. With more researchers mining social media for data, it is important to explore the scope of such a data source. On November 8, Dr. Shamus Khan of Columbia University visited the Ethnography Lab to deliver a talk on his co-authored article with Colin Jerolmack, entitled Talk is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy.

The premise of the article is simple with important implications for the field of sociology: talk is cheap. Jerolmack and Khan demonstrate that “sociologists routinely proceed to draw conclusions about people’s behaviors based on what they tell us,” committing what Jerolmack and Khan call the attitudinal fallacy. Given the concept of the attitudinal fallacy, can social behavior be deduced from analyzing data pulled from the Internet, specifically social media? In other words, if talk is cheap, are tweets cheaper?

This post is divided into three parts, each answering one of three questions. First, what is social media as a source of data? It is important to think through what kind of data is pulled from social media – is it qualitative or quantitative in nature? Second, are methods utilized to analyze social media, even quantitatively, more like ethnography or demography? A large amount of data can be pulled from social media, but does that mean we must use quantitative methods when analyzing it? Finally, what can social researchers discern from data pulled from social media? Can social behavior be discerned from data pulled from social media?

What is social media as a source of data?

In an instant, a researcher can collect a large number of tweets through social analytic sites such as Topsy, then analyze the data utilizing statistical or computational models, such as agent-based modeling. A number of demographic characteristics can be pulled from public accounts. For instance, a person tweeting or posting a major life event can be recorded and then pulled. These methods can be used to see who is participating in social media, and how. With geocoding, the researcher can spatially understand social networks and trends by pinpointing the location of a specific tweet or hashtag.

Qualitative methods could be utilized to analyze a small subset of tweets. This could involve comparing tweets before and after a specific event to be analyzed, or observing discourse between users. Directly observing people and interactions between people is a form of qualitative research in a new field: the Internet.

Are methods utilized to analyze social media, even quantitatively, more like ethnography or demography?

These methods, though mixed with parts of quantitative and qualitative research, are more similar to ethnography than demography. Demography is used to reveal shifting trends of a given population by analyzing data collected through surveys and censuses. The gaze of the researchers is present whenever a respondent answers a question in a survey or census. In ethnography, people are examined over time in a field. Instead of taking a survey of a respondent’s answer at one point in time, the ethnographer has the advantage of placing what they say in the context of what they do. In the field, the ethnographer can see people “do things” over time and across a multiplicity of contexts. The Internet, then, is a new sort of field.

The Internet as a field, of course, is not physical; but, similar to an ethnographic site, the Internet – specifically its users – can be observed from many perspectives in many different contexts over time. The amount of time you are “in the field” is indefinite because when someone uses the Internet, either through tweeting or posting, this activity is recorded.

On the Internet, people can be observed for as little or as long as necessary, both retroactively and in real time. It is a field in which the observations of this data can be made at any time, and because of the technology now available, data is being collected faster than ever before. Collecting observations where people are not being prompted to answer surveys or interviews and are behaving without recognition of a researcher is much more similar to ethnography than demography. Essentially, the researcher can place what someone says (i.e. what they tweet or post) in the context of what they do. 

What can social researchers discern from data pulled from social media?

Within the field of the Internet, data is collected and behavior is observed with mixed methods. Aggregating a large number of tweets and analyzing them statistically uses quantitative methods; however, when observing real people, in whom attitudes and behaviors can differ, when the researcher analyzes and uses that data the methods are also qualitative. These observations of and between people express behaviors because attitudes are expressed when prompted but behaviors are observed. Using the Internet can allow researchers to observe people and interactions both in real time and passed time, within different contexts and from different perspectives, and use qualitative, ethnographical methods to extract behaviors from quantitatively collected and analyzed data.


In conclusion, we claim that social behavior can be deduced through Facebook posts and tweets because what people post/tweet is a close proxy of what they do. Because the users observed are not prompted to answer a series of questions and are instead observed from a relatively outside perspective, the collected data can allow the researcher to observe discrepancies between what people say and do, and provide a more holistic view of social behavior, one similar to ethnography.