John Carpenter, Sociologist

I came here to discourse civilly and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of gum.

John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live is memorable for many reasons; firstly, it memorializes a place in time in popular culture when an iconic wrestler could get a leading role in a horror movie. It also features one of the most oft-quoted lines in movie history. What has solidified its place as a cult classic, however, is its timeless commentary on the media as a corporate tool, limiting public discourse and encouraging civil complacency.

As much as it pains me to say it, John Carpenter will not be remembered as a poignant sociological theorist. A year later in 1989, sociologist Jurgen Harbermas would expound on similar concepts in his piece The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (the piece itself was first published in 1962, but was translated into English in the late 80’s). Habermas described the emergence of a space between private life and political powers, which he coined the Public Sphere, where individuals could come together to freely discuss and identify social problems. First emerging in the 18th century with the collapse of feudal structures, Habermas viewed the public sphere as an arena for individual opinion to evolve into public opinion, free from the influence of government entities.

In a perfect democratic society, according to Habermas, media such as newspapers would serve as a conduit through which the public opinion would proliferate; the media could allow for asynchronous discussion of public issues, and allow for more than just the wealthy and educated to engage in these debates. As it stands, however, the movement from simple media to mass media instigated the “re-feudalization of the public sphere”; participation of the masses has become commodified, and political discourse displaced by entertainment and consumerism. As media proliferates, it becomes less about communicating public opinion, and more about shaping it.

“Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning the selection and presentation of the material.”

Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Habermas’ deductions may paint a grim picture regarding the public sphere and open discourse, others say the public sphere has moved, and perhaps grown, beyond the printed page. Sociologists such as Manuel Castells argue that the public sphere isn’t eroding, but has merely shifted to a global scale rather than a local one. For Castells, public society is not just a venn diagram between the private sphere and government entities, but a network society, in which information is processed and managed using digital technologies. In a network society, individuals are not reliant on institutions to obtain information, and can engage remotely to influence the political sphere.

Castell’s theory is corroborated by a body of work focusing on the counter-public sphere, in which marginalized communities can organize around their shared identities. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, counter-public spheres help form political opinion by allowing the marginalized to reframe what it means to be “hegemonic”. One example of the counter-public sphere in action can be seen in the case of Oscar Grant. Grant was shot and killed by Bay Area Transit officers in 2009, when an officer claimed that he thought he intended to fire his taser. Following the incident, videos were uploaded to Youtube, inciting public outrage and demonstrations (x). Using digital media, the witnesses were able to capture the attention of many beyond the scope of the Bay Area, turning an event witnessed by a few individuals into a public discourse.

Perhaps Habermas, and John Carpenter, are correct in lamenting the commercialization of the media. However the public sphere is not dying; it is thriving. New media has moved political opinion beyond the scope of the town pub and onto a digital stage. Digital networks allow the marginalized to create new organizational structures that go beyond the hegemony they experience on a daily basis, reframing public opinion beyond that which is portrayed in popular media. Moreso, a digital network society allows for a public opinion that can put pressure on the political sphere from beyond the walls of a town hall. And in the event that the ruling class is in fact a race of aliens bent on subduing the masses, maybe we can revisit John Carpenter’s theory.

 

Being Good at Doing Good: Collaboration, Citation, and Co-Authorship Amongst Animal Welfare Organizations

“Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.”

Immanuel Kant

That an innate desire to do good necessarily translates into effective outreach is not a given. Despite our best efforts, sometimes even our best intentions can have unintended consequences. Although there are innumerable cases of do-gooders-gone-awry, the case of PlayPumps comes to mind.

PlayPumps is a water solution system intended to replace arduous hand water pumps in African villages with Merry-go-Rounds that utilize the motion of the device to draw water. The design won a number of grants and sponsors to aid in its implementation and was widely hailed for its innovation.

Shortly after their instillation, however, PlayPumps weren’t putting the “fun” in “functionality” as initially hoped. Children found playing on the devices exhausting, and women in the villages often ended up churning the giant wheels by hand. When they broke, the cumbersome machines were often more costly to repair or replace than the original water pumps, and mechanically speaking generated less energy, and therefore less water, than the original devices. Ultimately, many villagers said they preferred the older method, and slowly the gaudy merry-go-round devices have either been replaced or lay dormant (x).

With non-profits and other altruistic endeavors, which stake their livelihood on putting on a good face, how can we see through the veneer and make sure they are doing the best possible job? Looking inward, how can these organizations evaluate their own methods to improve? And how often do they consult their peers who are working towards the same goal? In an attempt to answer these questions, I looked toward a movement close to my heart; animal welfare and animal activism.

Internal Research and The Animal Welfare Movement

Particularly in the United States, the animal welfare movement is a mixed bag of both long-established organizations and a crop of fledgling organizations that have quickly come to the forefront of the movement. Many of these newer organizations have their own internal research branches to evaluate their outreach interventions, however collaboration between groups is not well documented to say the least. Evaluative research has been done on a myriad of outreach interventions, such as corporate outreach, undercover investigations, leafleting, online ads, and humane education presentations (x). Most of this research, however, is conducted internally; the data is available, but only for those ready to spend hours mulling through obscurely linked research reports. Some organizations site academic pieces in psychological or philosophical journals to justify their interventions on their more public reports (x), however they are not as forthcoming with their citations of other animal welfare organizations.

Animal welfare organizations share many philosophical underpinnings with the effective altruism movement, a pseudo-utilitarian backbone that emphasizes highly effective activism and a commitment to ongoing research. Not all organizations share this mentality, however; Animal Welfare, “with a capital A”, is an umbrella which encompasses many smaller organizations with much more niche goals, such as humane societies, animal testing and vivisection, and wild animal rescue and shelter. In keeping with this dedication to maximizing outreach effectiveness, and focusing on organizations that would be the most likely to engage in collaborative efforts, I will not be including these more niche organizations in my analysis. My focus will be on organizations that emphasize general animal rights, industrial agriculture, general animal welfare, legal and legislative change, and metacharities, or charity evaluators.

My network analysis will investigate citation, collaboration, and coauthorship habits among animal welfare organizations in the United States. Particularly, this piece will investigate how these organizations are connected in regards to developing new interventions for effective advocacy. Using backlink tracking and html parsing of animal welfare organizations’ research publications and annual reports, I want to investigate which organizations collaborate or cite each other the most in evaluative research projects to create more effective outreach interventions.

This graphic from animalcharityevaluators.org represents its three highest ranks charities based on internal research, cost effectiveness, and innovative strategies. How likely are they to collaborate?

 

Data Collection

Initial research findings and annual reports were found from prominent animal welfare organizations using Animal Charity Evaluators’ Research Library. Animal Charity Evaluators’ research library comprises thousands of publications from organizations both in the Animal Welfare mainstream, but also academic journals on the periphery, so the search criteria required some refining. Using the site’s built in search functionality, publications were able to be refined to fit three main criteria; pieces published by animal welfare organizations, pieces published in the past ten years, and pieces that focused specifically on outreach techniques and interventions. This initial search yielded 25 publications from 21 different Animal Welfare Organizations. These publications will be parsed using the BeautifulSoup Python Library to help find hyperlink connections to other organizations. This initial search and first round of hyperlinks constitutes the original sample.

Next, backlinks will be traced between this first sample of organizations and organizations that cited/collaborated on these projects. Using an online backlink search engine, edges can be drawn between . Backlinks are used commonly to construct web based network analyses, particularly in research pertaining to knowledge and coauthorship networks (x)(x)(x). Organizations that were found through backlink tracing were added to the network sample as nodes. This procedure will then be repeated for organizations found through backlinks, creating a two-stage snowball sample.

Source and Target nodes will be manually compiled into a csv formatted edgelist to be plotted, cleaned, and analyzed using the NetworkX Python library. Graph data will then be imported into Gephi for visualization.

Like any other social movement, animal rights and the organizations at its forefront are trying to answer a difficult question; how do we get people to care? It is a psychological, and ultimately deontological question so elusive that it cannot hope to be answered alone. Ultimately, the aim of this research isn’t to answer that difficult of a question, or provide a catch-all solution to creating a perfectly unified animal rights front. My goal, using network analysis as my backdrop, is to help these groups answer more organizational questions; who else cares about what we care about? And how could we be working together?

 

 

 

Making Sense of Node Centrality Measures, or Finding Out What’s What to find the Who’s Who

When performing social network analytics, regardless of discipline, it is important to understand the question you are asking before you start combing for data. With data analytics tools like NumPy and NetworkX, you may find yourself computing four centrality measures because it’s easy and available, but end up with twice as many values to scratch your head over. The difference between some centrality measures may seem subtle, but knowing which to use for your research question could save you from a lot of headaches at the hands of your colleagues or IRB.

Degree centrality, for example, is the easiest to understand and compute of any centrality measure; for that reason it may seem appealing for your research. Entire social network analytics tools are built on the presumption that more connections = better, or more prestigious, or more influential. This may not always be the case in regards to identifying internet network structures. Degree centrality may be helpful for identifying the Sean King’s in your network, however it could also be responsible for finding the SpamBot78887’s and Lil B’s.

Consider this forthcoming article by Hyat et. al which investigates gendered discourse patterns in online social networks. By scraping demographic information, friendship networks, and forum activity from 21,000 of MyMarker Cafe‘s members, the authors sought to investigate the role of gender in shaping the structure of online discussion boards. The authors determined that men had a higher mean degree centrality value than women, and were more likely to start threads than women. However, women were more likely to make connections through their comments on other threads, and their posts were often held in higher regard by other users than those of their male counterparts.

Hyat et. al, 2017. The authors distinguished between friendship ties and activity ties. Men exhibited higher overall degree centrality values, however women were more likely to make ties through the activity network.

The authors concluded that men still dominated discourse on MyMarker Cafe. However, if their posts weren’t as popular, and women were more connected to active participants, does degree centrality tell the whole story? Do women connect to more prominent users, making Eigenvector centrality a more appropriate measure? Does their level of activity put them at the heart of the network, making closeness centrality a better measure? Degree centrality might give a pithier answer to their research question, but in this case might not be showing the whole picture.

A better example of centrality-done-right can be seen in a 2016 article investigating floodplain management efforts in the Netherlands. Using social network analysis, Fliervoet et. al set out to investigate collaborative efforts between government organizations and local NGO’s. The data encapsulates two networks: flood protection groups and nature preservation groups, both of whom’s interests intersect at the floodplains. The authors calculated both degree centrality and betweenness centrality measures in their data analysis. As the authors hypothesized, degree centrality values were higher among government organizations than NGO’s. However, betweenness centrality tells a much more interesting story. Certain governmental organizations serve as liaisons between both networks, which were otherwise loosely connected. These organizations displayed similar degree centrality values to other governmental organizations, but in the context of the research played a much more important role: they encouraged collaboration between public groups.

Social Network Analysis techniques are valuable because they allow us to investigate dynamic relationships within a network. As researchers, we need to make sure our methods are just as dynamic in order for our analyses to be as accurate as possible.

 

 
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